We received a number of disturbing reports following our most recent posting on Microbes and Medicine. Dr John Radcliffe appeared to have fallen on his side, his magnificent statue having, for some unfathomable computerish reason, rotated 90° to the left.

We are delighted to confirm that order has now been restored and the good doctor is fully vertical once more. Let us, therefore, take this opportunity to pay tribute to Oxford’s most notable benefactor, the man whose philanthropic bequest has done so much to benefit and beautify our world.

Radlcliffe Close Up - JR

John Radcliffe was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire in 1652. He came up to University College at the tender age of thirteen. The matriculation lists record his father, George, as a ‘pleb’. In 1675, having completed his medical course and degree he became a Fellow of Lincoln College, but resigned his fellowship two years later because he did not wish to take holy orders as was then required under the university statutes.

He developed a glowing reputation as a perceptive diagnostician (with a preference for herbal remedies rather than purgatives and leeching). He was also noted for his straight-talking, not to say blunt style, a mode of delivery which became more pronounced in later life. When one patient with a tendency towards hypochondria complained to him of hearing ‘singing noises in the head’, Dr Radcliffe is said to have recommended that he ‘go home and wipe your arse with a ballad’.

In 1684 he moved from Oxford to London, where he became personal physician to King William III, Queen Anne and a number of ‘Society’ clients, including luminaries like Isaac Newton, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Pepys. Presumably this is how he came to amass a considerable fortune, the cushion of which eventually enabled him to become an MP, first for the notoriously venal borough of Bramber in Sussex (1690-1695), and then for Buckingham (where he had acquired substantial landholdings) from 1713 until the year of his death in 1714. Following a lavish funeral, he was buried in the university church, St Mary the Virgin. A plaque records his tomb’s location ‘near the north-west corner of the organ screen’.

Radcliffe Statue Front Side - JR

Radcliffe never married. In his will, dated 13 September 1714, he left the bulk of his considerable estate (estimates put the figure at around £140,000) to his two sisters and a variety of Oxford-based trusts. ‘The love of money, which I have emphatically known to be the root of all evil, was too predominant over me,’ he confessed in a private letter, ‘though I hope I have made some amends for that odious sin of covetousness in my last disposition.’ To give some idea of the size of his bequest in the values of the time, the first porter to attend the Radcliffe library, the splendidly named Pudsey Mussendine, received a salary of £20 per annum.

Radcliffe’s funds were used to provide scholarships, travelling fellowships, prizes, bursaries, and, in due course, to build the Observatory, the Infirmary (which went on to spawn the later Hospital) the Library, and the quad in University College, all of which bear his name. The Warneford hospital, too, was previously called the Radcliffe lunatic asylum.

But it is the Radcliffe Camera for which Dr John is best known, the magnificent rotunda which sits at the heart of Oxford. It was designed by James Gibbs and built over a dozen years (1737-49) to accommodate a library and reading room. With its pedimented bays and cupola-topped dome of lead it is surely one of the most striking, most distinctive, most photographed buildings in Britain. The adjective ‘iconic’ is overused but in this case accurate. As for inside, according to Geoffrey Tyack, our leading architectural historian, ‘There is no finer classical interior in Oxford, and few in England,’ – though you do need to be a member of the university to use it.

radcliffe camera composite - JR

In the Upper Reading Room of the ‘Rad Cam’ (as it is inelegantly known to students) stands a life-size carving of Radcliffe in white marble. Far more engaging and accessible is the statue located outside the Observatory at Green Templeton College, commissioned by the Radcliffe Trustees in conjunction with the Ashmolean Museum to mark the three hundredth anniversary of his death. It was designed, created and cast in bronze by Martin Jennings, who for 39 years lived in Oxford, and whose superb work includes the much-loved statue of John Betjeman in St Pancras Station.

Here the sculptor captures brilliantly the spirit of his subject, including no doubt an attitude of general disdain and more than a whiff of self importance. Swagged in his voluminous baroque cloak, gold-topped cane in hand, Radcliffe gazes imperiously into the middle distance …

As well he might. For whatever his qualities as a physician and foibles as an individual, there is no doubt that Dr John Radcliffe’s farsighted gift to humanity, and with it his memory, will live on for many grateful generations to come.

Radcliffe Statue Back - JR

morris oxford favicon 64 - JR


Martin Jennings had another commission recently. You can see his superb work here and watch the captivating video:
We were delighted when none other than Martin Jennings, sculptor of the JR statue, got in touch.

What a nice piece about John Radcliffe and the statue I made of him! He was a fabulous subject. I was trying to express something of the generosity of his exceptional bequest to the University, at the same time as putting across his reportedly supercilious personality – in other words to do two opposite things at the same time! … We are told he was forever hanging about in coffee houses when he should have been treating his patients, which prompted the inclusion of a slightly louche demeanour: his shirt is unbuttoned at the throat, and he wears a velvet cap rather than the formal wig of the period. Those might even be slippers on his feet too. He was great fun to sculpt. The commission was a delight.

Image 18 03 2022 at 15.27 - JR

Incidentally, the Ashmolean Museum owns a bronze cast of the original maquette – the original small-scale model of the sculpture, only 10 inches high. (It was on show there for a while but I’m not sure if it is at the moment.) I cast a limited edition of these. It’s always interesting to see how a sculpture changes between first and final states. In this case Radcliffe seems to have started out a bit thinner and less supercilious and become more so as he grew taller!” – MJ

Meanwhile, mention of the Radcliffe Camera prompted this Wise reflection …
Image 18 03 2022 at 15.28 - JR

I was particularly taken with your article on JR because it had links of a sort with our early years in Oxford. Before moving to Islip five years ago, we lived in Elsfield, in one of the outhouses of Elsfield Manor. Nowadays the Manor is best known as the former home of John Buchan. But back in the mid-18th century it was the home of one Francis Wise (1695-1767) as commemorated by a plaque in the village church. Francis Wise was a Fellow of Trinity and the first librarian of the Radcliffe Camera.

As such, he developed a certain notoriety on account of his marked antipathy towards readers. This he expressed through putting a large padlock on the door in order to keep them out! By one account, the Vice-Chancellor of the day sent a blacksmith to remove the padlock; whereupon Wise dispatched his own blacksmith to put it back. It seems that the V-C had the final word, not through force of arms but by quoting to Wise the relevant passage from the university statutes to assert his authority over the librarian’s: the pen proving mightier than the hammer!

Wise was also a friend of Samuel Johnson, who visited him at the Manor. This event is fictionalised in the opening pages of John Buchan’s historical novel, Midwinter. Wise was also instrumental, with Thomas Wharton, in persuading the University to award Johnson a degree; earlier in his life, Johnson had been obliged to cut short his time as an undergraduate through lack of funds.

Wise’s other memorable contribution, reflecting his interests as an antiquarian, was to build various ‘objets’ in the classical style in the garden of the Manor. Sadly no evidence remains of the pyramid but there is still an imitation classical gravestone (interestingly, copied from an original once at Dorchester Abbey but now lost) and the shell of a small ‘temple’ overlooking the pond. – Charles Shaw