All Souls was founded by Henry VI and Henry Chichele (fellow of New College and Archbishop of Canterbury), in 1438
By Ian Davis
Nicholas Pevsner described Radcliffe Square in glowing terms: ‘The area by the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian is unique in the world, or if that seems a hazardous statement, it is certainly unparalleled in Cambridge.’ But his careful reference to an ‘area’ rather than a ‘square’ recognises that it fulfils no particular, unified design but resulted from a series of happy accidents.
It took more than 400 years to create the square we know, with the ceiling plasterwork of All Souls’ Codrington Library finally completed in 1751. The sequence went like this: St Mary’s Tower and Old Congregation House 1320, Library 1410–1488; All Souls Front Quad and chapel 1438–1443; Duke Humfrey’s Library 1483–1490; St Mary’s nave 1485–1510; Brasenose College Old Quad 1509–1518 and chapel 1656–1666; Bodleian Library Schools (John Akroyd and John Bentley) 1613–1624; All Souls North Quad (Nicholas Hawksmoor) 1716–1734; All Souls Codrington Library (Hawksmoor) 1716–1751; Radcliffe Camera (James Gibbs) 1737–1749.All Souls’ Codrington Library was finally completed in 1751
At first sight a sublime example of urban planning, Radcliffe Square was anything but. Three deaths were instrumental. Christopher Codrington (1710) and John Radcliffe (1714) both left massive bequests to build libraries. Hawksmoor’s death in 1736 enabled the gifted Gibbs to follow his concept for the Camera. St Mary’s and the medieval quadrangles and chapels of All Souls and Brasenose are unified only through their common medieval architectural language of stone, detail and ornament. But from 1700 each building was carefully conceived in relation to context.
Hawksmoor’s plans for the North Quad of All Souls were discarded in 1710 when Codrington left the college 12,000 books, £6,000 to erect a library and £4,000 to purchase future books. The tercentenary of the laying of the foundation stone on 21 June 1716 has been marked with restraint: Codrington was notoriously a Caribbean sugar plantation slaver.
The Codrington library was Oxford’s longest and England’s first ground-floor college library – its predecessors having been set on the first floor for fear of rising damp. Hawksmoor had an impossible brief since he had to pay respects to All Souls’ Gothic chapel and Radcliffe Square’s medieval character as well as 1716’s baroque tastes. His compromise was to design the exterior of the west window to Radcliffe Square in a pseudo-Gothic style, while the interior was transformed into a classical Venetian window.
In 1713 Hawksmoor submitted ambitious plans to rebuild the centre of Oxford in a ‘Forum Universitatis’, including public open space between St Mary’s and the Schools around a single statue or column. His proposal required demolishing two streets, building a new University Church on the Hertford College site and rebuilding Brasenose College.
This dynamic changed suddenly when John Radcliffe left £40,000 to the University to house his science library adjacent to the Bodleian. In 1734 his trustees solicited designs from Gibbs, who proposed a rectangular library, and Hawksmoor who, in a moment of pure genius, proposed a domed circular structure alluding to a classical mausoleum to form an ‘island’ facing its distinguished neighbours in all directions. When Hawksmoor died, Gibbs was asked to produce the magnificent library we see today. John Betjeman admired the dome as it gathered ‘surrounding spires and towers together like a hen her chicks’. It took more than 400 years to create the Radcliffe Square that we know today
William Faden’s 1789 Oxford map shows an area around the Camera substantially identical to what we see today. The magnificence of the Radcliffe assembly of buildings can best be experienced from Catte Street and Brasenose Lane. But the greatest views are from St Mary’s or the Fellows’ Garden of Exeter College.
The last words are from Thomas Sharp’s appreciation: ‘In a country where building does not always rise to architecture, and where the architecture is merely pleasant, a first-class aesthetic experience such as this should be treated with awe.’
Ian Davis, a visiting professor at Oxford Brookes and elsewhere. He studied architecture and is writing a book, Experiencing Oxford, illustrated with his own watercolour paintings.