England’s Best Views: Oxford, Radcliffe Square

‘Oxford at the turn of the 18th century needed to attract the sons of the wealthy and the aristocratic, to become the “academy of the nation”. For this, the university needed a central presence beyond the scatter of its component colleges.

The authorities commissioned Hawksmoor to propose what amounted to an academic campus. This would lie between the official university church of St Mary’s on the High and the Sheldonian Theatre. It would encompass the old Bodleian library and a rebuilt Brasenose College. At its centre would be an open square with a column in the middle, a true “forum universitatis”.

This vision was drastically altered in 1714 with the receipt of an enormous bequest of £40,000 from the royal doctor, John Radcliffe, for a university science library. The job of designing the domed Radcliffe Camera went to the young James Gibbs and it opened in 1748 ’


Extracted from ‘England’s 100 Best Views’ by Simon Jenkins, to be published by Profile books in October 2013 (£25 hardback)

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