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Sir Christopher Wren, 1632-1723

Harold F. Hutchison introduces the son of royalist gentry, an Oxford graduate, a Professor of Astronomy, a mathematician, and the most distinguished architect that Britain has produced. Leo Hollis added a historiographical postscript in 2010.

Christopher Wren, by Godfrey Kneller, 1711
Christopher Wren, by Godfrey Kneller, 1711

The skyline of the city of London in 1973 is very different from what it was when, exactly two hundred and fifty years ago, the body of Sir Christopher Wren was carried to its simple tomb beneath the dome of St Paul’s. It is even very different from what it was in the late forties when the undecorated boredom of modern 'vertical features’ in ferro-concrete first began to challenge Wren’s cathedral and his surviving City churches. Today, new pedestrian precincts girdle a renovated St Paul’s; there is a new London Bridge under construction; the complex of new urban tower blocks approaches completion; and at last most of the Wren architecture that survived the second Great Fire of London is ably and respectfully restored. This is, therefore, an appropriate moment to reassess the life and work of the man whose elegant variety of invention still holds pride of place amid so much undistinguished anonymity. What manner of man was Wren, what was his background and what was his life’s work?

He was born in 1632 of the gentry — the very royalist gentry — and his near relatives were distinguished alumni of the High Church of England. An uncle, Matthew Wren, was the Bishop of Ely, who, as a loyal friend and supporter of Archbishop Laud, was condemned by the Puritans to eighteen years imprisonment in the Tower. His father — also a Christopher — was a fine scholar and rector of a Wiltshire village church where his ingenious plaster work and king-posted roofing can still be seen. He had followed his brother as Dean of Windsor and chaplain to the Order of the Garter, and, as a staunch royalist, he had only precariously escaped his brother’s unpleasant fate. Although, therefore, the young Christopher was nurtured in Wiltshire, he spent much of his boyhood in the shelter of the deanery at Windsor, where the royal children were among his playmates. As a child, Christopher was somewhat delicate and, as a result, his early education was entrusted to a private tutor; it was not until the age of nine that he began formal schooling under that notorious disciplinarian and ardent royalist, Dr Busby of Westminster School. Detailed evidence for these early years is scarce; but, at the age of thirteen, Christopher Wren undoubtedly displayed exceptional scholarship and a precocious skill in astronomy. When the Civil War began, the Roundheads drove the Wren family from the shelter of Windsor, first to Bristol and later to the rectory of a son-in-law, Dr Holder, at Bletchington near Bicester. The young Christopher was now able to divide his time between the excellent coaching of Dr Holder, in Oxfordshire, and the private tuition of a distinguished surgeon and mathematician, Dr Charles Scarburgh, in London.

At the age of seventeen, Wren became a gentleman-commoner at Wadham College, Oxford, in that fateful year of 1649 which in January had seen the public execution of King Charles I. At Wadhain, Wren found a warden (Dr Wilkins) and, elsewhere in Oxford, a group of distinguished scholars who even during the Civil Wars had formed what the young physicist Robert Boyle called an ‘invisible college’ of brains, devoted to the new ‘experimental philosophy’ of Francis Bacon. As Wren’s grandson put it in the family biography (called Parentalia), Wren quickly won ‘the esteem of the most celebrated Virtuosi and Mathematicians of the Time’. Wren’s academic career was brilliant — he took his M.A. and became a Fellow of All Souls in 1658, and at the early age of twenty-five he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London.

Although Wren specialized in astronomy until he was well over thirty — and, indeed, his interest in it was life-long — his researches and his inventions, while he divided his time between Oxford and London, were as wide as life itself. Here is a list of some of his manifold activities at this period:

‘Hypothesis of the moon in solid; to find whether the earth moves; the weather-wheel; an artificial eye; to write double by an instrument; a perspective box for surveys; several new ways of graving and etching; to weave many ribbons at once with only turning a wheel; improvements in the arts of husbandry; divers new engines for raising of water; a pavement harder, fairer and cheaper than marble; to grind glasses; a way of embroidery for beds cheap and fair; pneumatic engines; new ways of printing; new designs tending to strength, convenience and beauty in building; divers new musical instruments; a speaking organ; new ways of sailing; probable ways for making fresh water at sea, the best ways for reckoning time-way- longitude and observing at sea; fabrick for a vessel for war; to build in the sea forts moles etc.; inventions for better making and forti1ing havens, for clearing sands and to sound at sea; to stay long under water; submarine navigation; easier ways of whale-fishing; new cyphers; to pierce a rock in mining; to purge or vomit or alter the mass by incctions into the blood; anatomical experiments; to measure the height of a mountain only by journeying over it; a compass to play in a coach or the hand of a rider; a way of rowing; to perfect coaches for case, strength and lightness...’

The only traces in this extraordinary catalogue of the Wren most of us know are two references to his interest in building methods and materials, and his constant anxiety to achieve something ‘fairer and cheaper’. It is, indeed, a formidably comprehensive programme of activities for a man who was primarily Professor of Astronomy, and it is no wonder that when John Evelyn visited Oxford in 1654 he cut the Latin sermon — a great university occasion — in order to have time to pay a call on ‘that miracle of a youth, Mr Christopher Wren’.

In the first year of Charles It’s ‘Happy Restoration’, Wren achieved the notable academic distinction of the Savilian Chair of Astronomy at Oxford - he was twenty-eight. Wren had known Charles as a child at Windsor; now through John Evelyn he was to meet him as a monarch with a quite unusual interest in the new philosophy. The King expressed keen interest in Wren’s researches, and Wren’s ingenious relief model of the moon found an honoured place in the King’s ‘closet’, which had become in fact a royal museum of the new science. And now the Oxford Group of Wilkins, Boyle, Wren and their friends was to achieve immortality at the hands of a monarch who was perhaps the most immoral but certainly the most intelligent man who ever sat on the English throne. The Royal Society was founded and incorporated in Restoration year, and we have Wren’s excellent draft for its royal charter. The society was to ‘prosecute effectively the Advancement of Natural Experimental Philosophy especially those parts of it which concern the Encrease of Commerce by the Addition of useful Inventions tending to the Ease, Profit or Health of our Subjects . . . to confer about the hidden Causes of Things . . . and to prove themselves real Benefactors to Mankind’. It is, perhaps, a typical English trait that he was shy of proclaiming noble ends without emphasis on practical excuse; and it is to their everlasting credit that the founding fathers of the Royal Society proclaimed absolute international toleration in an age when intolerance ruled unquestioned and untamed in most spheres of life.

It was through this Royal Society that Wren was offered his first architectural appointment — the King asked him to become surveyor to new harbour works at Tangier, which had come to him in the dowry of his Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Wren politely excused himself on grounds of ill-health, and he seems to have managed his refusal with considerable adroitness and some worldly circumspection — Charles was in no way offended. Meanwhile, Wren’s uncle, Matthew Wren, had at last been freed and immediately restored to his bishopric of Ely. In thanksgiving, he determined to donate a new chapel to his old college at Cambridge — Pembroke — and he asked his nephew to design it. It was Christopher Wren’s first exercise in architecture. At the same time at Oxford the wealthy Bishop Sheldon, soon to become Archbishop, was anxious to donate to his old university a hail in which the secular, and somewhat boisterous, ceremonies of degree presentations could be appropriately staged — they had previously taken place in the university church of St Mary’s and had frequently caused scandal and riot. Sheldon had been a contemporary of Wren’s at All Souls and was also a friend of Matthew Wren — he had quickly recognized Wren’s potentialities and now asked him to design the building named after him as the Sheldonian Theatre. Both buildings have met with criticisms from later professional judges of architecture, but both are still full of interest to the amateur. Pembroke chapel is simple but of great dignity, and its west front is a charming exercise in Corinthian pilasters and classical decoration. The Sheldonian is in more heroic vein. It had to be an assembly room for large numbers in which the principal actors could be seen and heard without impediment, and it had to provide the maximum of daylight. There had been no great public buildings in England since the masterly work of Inigo Jones at Whitehall, Greenwich, Covent Garden and old St Paul’s west-end; but Wren had available the architectural treatises of Vitruvius, of Serlio and of Palladio, and it was to Serlio’s engravings of the ancient Roman theatre of Marcellus that he turned for inspiration. But where the Romans needed only a canvas roof and the Italian sky, Wren had to provide complete protection against English wind and weather for a very large unimpeded area. His geometry, his mathematics, and his engineering surmounted every difficulty, and his model, adapting the timber truss-system invented by his friend Dr John Wallis (the Savilian Professor of Geometry) for flooring to an ingenious new roofing system, was enthusiastically approved by the Royal Society and was soon under construction. The painted ceiling hides structural jointed trusses which were even strong enough to support the university printing presses above them, and its painted cords deliberately recalled the tented roofs of ancient Rome. Within the theatre all was space, loftiness and light, and only on the exterior is there perhaps some evidence of an artist who was not yet quite sure of himself — the grotesque heads that surmount the northern railings are indefensible — and yet the Sheldonian has all the intimations of genius.’ During the six years occupied in its construction (it was opened in 1669), Dr Christopher Wren the distinguished astronomer transformed himself into Wren the superlative architect.

It was probably Bishop Sheldon who was also responsible for first involving Vren in the problems of St Paul’s. The vast medieval gothic cathedral still dominated the city. Its west-end had been renovated and re-dressed by Inigo Jones in the new ‘Roman’ fashion which had swept over Europe, but the Civil Wars had stopped further progress, and at the Restoration most of the ancient fabric was in a dangerously defective condition. In 1663 the King appointed a commission to report on St Paul’s, and, although Wren was not officially one of its members, there is evidence that Sheldon Consulted him. Meanwhile, Wren had decided to see for himself what the new architecture was all about — he set off for France where, under Le Rol Soleil, with Colbert as superintendent of the King’s buildings, Le Vau as chief architect at Versailles and Mansart at the pinnacle of his fame, the French genius and the new architecture were in full flower. In addition, there were two distinguished Italians also basking in the French sunshine — Guarini was building his complicated domed church of St Anne-la-Royale, and Bernini had arrived to complete the palace of the Louvre. There is an ecstatic letter from Wren which expresses what this visit meant to him at the tune, and there is the witness of his long life as a practising architect to prove what a powerful and abiding influence it had.

He returned to England to continue his astronomy lectures in public, but in private to execute the beautiful coloured drawings that illustrated his recommendations for a renovated St Paul’s and which are still at All Souls, Oxford. They are now known as the ‘pre-Fire’ designs, and his recommendations display all his armoury — criticizing masonry, investigating structure, exploring foundations, and finally leading up to the revolutionary suggestion that, for thc first time in England, a central ‘cupola’, or ‘spacious dome’, should take the place of the old central tower. Wren had enjoyed himself — even though his suggestions were not accepted. He wrote, ‘I shall not repent the great satisfaction and pleasure I have taken in the contrivance, which equalls that of poetry or compositions in Musick’. He, Evelyn and their friends in the Royal Society, however, had not wasted their time — the idea of a dome was accepted in principle. A few weeks later, the Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the greater part of the city of London and left St Paul’s a roofless ruin. The fire had begun on September 2nd, the flames were not subdued until September 7th, and the embers smouldered for weeks. As early as September 1 Ith Wren submitted to the King his suggestions for a complete replanning of London — this miracle of a man was indeed a fast worker. The scheme met with immediate approval from the King, and Evelyn, who had also submitted suggestions, was in no way hurt that Wren’s proposals were preferred. In the end, idealist town-planning was defeated by the real and immediate necessities of the London citizens, rich and poor alike. But if Wren himself was disappointed over his Grand Design for a new London, with what excitement he must have looked on the ruins of St Paul’s and the eighty- seven parish churches destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Here was a colossal task for someone, and fortunately for London here was a colossal genius ready and superbly equipped to undertake it.

While merchants and citizens rehoused themselves as best they could amid the rubble and charred debris, or beyond the old walls in the rapidly growing suburbs, two shrewd Acts of Parliament laid taxes on all coal coming into the port of London in order to pay for the immediate rebuilding of property, for compensation and finally for the rebuilding of St Paul’s and most of the parish churches, and for a great monument to commemorate the tragedy. The second Act was passed in 1670 and in that same year the Savilian Professor of Astronomy became the architect — Wren was appointed Surveyor of His Majesty’s Works. It was a royal choice which leap-frogged Wren over men with senior claims to the post, but it was a very intelligent choice, and it says much for Wren’s tact and character that even the disappointed bore him no grudge. As Surveyor, Wren commanded a considerable staff, roughly similar to a modern Ministry of Vorks but comprising a much wider range of royal craftsmen. The position gave him fine offices in Scotland Yard, a large house and an adequate income for life. And with typical common sense, he now turned his attention to marriage. His wife was to be Faith Coghill of Bletchington whom he had known for twenty years.

Wren was thirty-seven when he finally turned architect proper. His first major commissions were the rebuilding of St Paul’s and the reconstruction of 51 Out of the 87 parish churches in the City of London destroyed by the Fire. The first stone of the new cathedral was laid in June 1675 almost ten years after the Fire. When Vren was sixty-five (a usual retiring age in modern times), the new choir of St Paul’s was opened for services. The dome was not completed until he was seventy-eight, and in the meantime he had added Trinity College Library at Cambridge, Tom Tower at Oxford, Chelsea Royal Hospital, Vinchester Palace, much of the new Hampton court, parts of Kensington Palace, parts of the domes and great hall of the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich, parts of the Temple and Temple Bar, the Monument, the old Custom House, parts of a new Whitehall Palace, Flamsteed House at Greenwich, and, as well as the churches in the City, St James’s Piccadilly, St Bride’s off Fleet Street and St Andrew’s in Holborn to the scroll of his fame. And between times he had surveyed and advised on Salisbury cathedral and Vestminster Abbey. It was a prodigious output by any standards. In his new parish churches never was so manifold a variety so clearly stamped by individual genius; and enough of them have survived the second Great Fire of London, during the Second World War, to illustrate his consummate mastery. He was working for shrewd, hard-headed task-masters frequently on difficult and oddly-shaped sites, and he was designing for a new conception of public worship. The Puritans had once and for all rid the English church of medieval priest-craft — the churches of the Restoration had to be public halls for preachers and lay congregations and not a series of side chapels for clerical worship. His churches were built to stringent budgets for clients with ambitious but practical idcas. To appreciate how Wren’s own ambitions could work on a small scale it is only necessary to look again at the dome — the so-called ‘rehearsal’ dome — of St Stephen, Waibrook, or at the smaller but very choice ‘cupola’ of St Mary Abchurch. On a larger scale, perhaps the finest extant example — and Wren himself thought it his best — is probably St James’s Piccadilly, now beautifully restored with its galleries and Grinling Gibbons carving. In all Vren’s work for the City churches there is superb ‘taste’ — a word which he would not have understood; he would have said ‘proportion’ — only occasionally marred by the coarseness or over-exuberance of some of the lesser craftsmen who were given too free a hand by the City Fathers. In all of them there is an ingenuity of construction, which he would have called ‘pure geometry’, and a variety of invention in their spires and towers which alone would place Wren in the first-rank of architects, and they were only a part of his colossal ‘oeuvre’.

To deal in detail with so vast an output in this limited space is impossible, but more must be said of St Paul’s . . . It had been hoped to save something from the wreck of the old fabric; but, after careful inspection, Wren reported that this was unwise, and it needed a serious accident during an attempt at repair to convince the authorities that he was right. Wren was asked to prepare plans for a modest new cathedral. He produced what is known as his ‘First Model’, which was to be ‘something more like a very large version in classical terms of the ancient Temple church’, says Sir John Summerson — it was to be a large gaileried choir with a domed vestibule at its west end. It was considered to be far too modest, and ‘After this’, says Parentalia, ‘the Surveyor drew several sketches merely for Discourse-sake, and observing the Generality rere for Grandeur, he endcavour’d to gratify the Taste of the Connoisseurs and Criticks with something coloss and beautiful, with a Design antique and well studied, comformable to the best Stile of the Greek and Roman architecture.’ The superb Great Model for this design is still to be seen in the library of his cathedral. It is of wood with even invisible detail completed, and is large enough to allow inspection from inside. It is the design which Wren said later he would have preferred to build — it has no choir, no aisles and no side-chapels; there is simply a triumphal central space beneath a great dome supported by eight lesser domes and completed with a classical domed and pedimented portico. It was, however, much too daring for the cathedral authorities whose medievalism was not yet wholly dead. Wren was obliged to compromise, and his so-called ‘Warrant Design’ was finally accepted by the clergy and authorized by the King. But this was very different from the St Paul’s that was actually built. Wrcn must command general sympathy in his difficult negotiations with chapter and court, and he deserves compliments for a technique which finally obtained sanction for his compromise, happily coupled with full authority to alter it as he thought fit. The ‘Varrant’ design is a mongrel. In plan it is cruciform with an apsidal choir and an imposing west front, while over the central crossing is a mean dome with a spire above it which, if carried out, would have looked today as though the wedding cake of St Bride’s steeple had been stuck on top of the Old Bailey. In the event, the spire was mercifully forgotten, and the design we admire today gradually evolved over the next twenty years.

In preparing the new foundations, Wren’s ingenuity was much in evidence. He re-invented the classical battering-ram for demolition work, and his use of gun-powder was a lesson to mining engineers. The complete new structure took only thirty-five years to complete, an astonishingly speedy achievement for so immense and so daring a design. The new dome was based on the Bramanre-Michelangelo dome at St Peter’s, while the western towers re-echoed the tempictto of Bramante in the cloister of San Pietro in Montorio on the Janiculum at Rome. But in its internal structure it is a work of astounding orginality. The near hemispherical dome, seen from within, is of plastered brick. This is surmounted by an invisible brick cone (almost twice the height of the visible inner dome) which supports both the outer dome, which is of leaded timber, and the massive Portland stone lantern with its gilded ball and cross. The thrusts of this brick cone arc contained by a great invisible chain of iron set in lead, and the whole sructurc is ringed by the Stone Gallery on its stone colonnade. The roofing of nave and choir is supported by flying buttresses of very ‘gothick’ fashion but hidden behind the lofty curtain walls which give the impression from the outside that St Paul’s is a two-storied church, but which are justifiable as adding both grandeur and weight to the all-round abutment. St Paul’s, then, has a double dome with its inner brick cone as its structural secret. From within and without it appears as a consistent Portland stone edifice. St Paul’s is classical architecture perfectly adapted to a ‘gothick’ plan. Ruskin called it a fraud. Most men call it genius.

Sir Christopher Wren — he was knighted in 1675 — on the whole lived a happy and contented life. He was never so happy as when he was enjoying a drink and his pipe with his learned cronies in one or other of the many London coffee-houses, or entertaining a wide circle to dinner or enjoying an afternoon at the playhouse. His friends came from every strata of society — he was as easy with princes as with dons, as respected by fellow-designers as by subordinate craftsmen, as modest as he was shrewd, as even- tempered as he was witty. But perhaps he lived too long. In the final stages of the construction of St Paul’s there was the incredible political meanness of the Commissioners, who persuaded Parliament to postpone the payment of half his very modest fee until the fabric should be complete; and it needed three special petitions before this decision was rescinded and the arrears paid. There was, too, a dispute over the railings outside the cathedral — Wren wanted wrought-iron and the Commissioners insisted upon cast-iron. ‘1 here was a further dispute over the top of the high outer walls. Wren wanted a few accenting statues, while the Commissioners preferred a stone balustrade — Wren remarked that some folk, ‘like ladies, think nothing well without an edging’. Finally in 1718, at the great age of eighty-six, he was at last superseded, and retired to his house at Hampton Court where, as his son reports, he spent the remaining five years of his life Contemplation and studies, and principally in the Consolation of the holy Scriptures; cheerful in Solitude and as well pleased to die in the shade as in the Light’. He died peacefully in his sleep in his ninety-first year.

As so often happens immediately after the death of a great man, a reaction against Wren’s baroque style set in which lasted until the hero- worship of Robert Elmes in the early nineteenth century began a Wren revival. Under the Neo— Gothicists again Wren was out of fashion; but, since the eclipse of Ruskin, Wren’s reputation both in England and Europe has steadily reached a peak from which it is unlikely ever again to be dislodged.

Who was it that died in 1723? The astronomer and the mathematician who had earned the admiration and friendship of Sir Isaac Newton; the artist who shared the novelty of the mezzotint with Prince Rupert (and who incidentally enjoyed an annual gift of wine from that learned cavalier’s Rhenish estates); the foundermember, and later President, of the Royal Society, whose presidential address was on the subject of earthquakes; the loyal and beloved friend of all the most eminent brains of his long day; the devout churchman who conjured truth, dignity and beauty to flower where so much else was rotten, decayed or hypocritical; the virtuoso who deserves to rank with Bacon; the all-rounder who deserves at least a mention with Leonardo; or the greatest of English architects without a peer in his own country and without a superior in any other?

When, in Ruskin’s day, Thomas Carlyle was walking past Wren’s Royal Hospital at Chelsea, he paused to look at it carefully for the first time, and lie later wrote — ‘It was quiet and dignified, and the work of a gentleman’. Wren would have appreciated that comment. It was possibly the greatest and most typical of English ‘gentlemen’ who died at ninety-one in 1723, and, when social historians castigate the follies and immoralities of the Restoration period, they should remember too the sober, modest yet prodigious achievements of a contemporary circle of English scholars whose greatest ornament was Sir Christopher Wren, geometer, astronomer and architect.

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