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Art review: Christopher Wren: The Quest for Knowledge (St Paul’s Cathedral)

21 July 2023

Nicholas Cranfield sees a tercentennial display

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Christopher Wren, the portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, 1711

Sir Christopher Wren, the portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt, 1711

CHRISTOPHER WREN (1632-1723), “Architect, Mathematician, Patriot”, as it reads on his birthplace marker at the Wiltshire Rectory in East Knoyle, designed his own tombstone, which is now on a wall in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

There, it is surrounded by grave-markers and cenotaphs to other artists. George Richmond is alongside Van Dyck, J. M. W. Turner next to John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Joshua Reynolds among them.

The simplicity of the architect’s tomb is notable. For it, his son composed a Latin epitaph that reads: Lector, si monumentum requiris, Circumspice. In other words, if you are seeking out a monument, look around you.

No exhibition can hope to offer more than that as advice since the structure of Wren’s imagining remains much as he planned it; the “Great Model”, a scale model for his final design, is in the triforium.

Regrettably, the aisles have become cluttered with monuments from the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The first civilian to be honoured with a statue was the prison reformer John Howard FRS, who was born three years after Wren died.

The earliest monument is Nicholas Stone’s for John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s (1621-31), who had planned to rebuild the earlier medieval cathedral for King Charles I. It was salvaged from the burned-out cathedral, but found its place in the south ambulatory only in the last century.

In Wren’s day, the nave was not intended for seating or for processions — the reformed Church of England might tolerate classical architecture, but was not to be seduced into papistical practices — and, as anyone knows who has had to speak there, it was never planned to hold services under the dome.

Using a series of light boxes and display boards, the little exhibition in the north aisle of the crypt, “Christopher Wren: The Quest for Knowledge”, brings together photos and facsimiles of engravings and portraits.

I still hope one day to get to see the portrait of Wren belonging to The Georgian House, Edinburgh, and painted by John Wrigley in 1711 (National Trust Scotland) contrasted with Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait of 1711 (National Portrait Gallery), which celebrated the completion of the cathedral, topped out by Wren’s son the previous year. But at least here is a photograph of the London picture.

The Wenceslaus Hollar engraving of the view of the City of London from the South Bank before and after the Great Fire of 2 September 1666, clearly shows the destruction to the city of spires that had then numbered 108. A slightly earlier map (shown beside the Hollar) gives an alphabetical gazette of all the city churches.

Each is listed without “Saint” appearing in the dedication. Thus, “Leonard in Easter lane”, “James Dukes place nere Aldgat”, “Dennis back Church nere Fishestreete” with a total of 99. Wren could have had such maps to hand to assist in drafting plans.

Surely the British Museum would have been keen to lend the map that Alexander Hogg published in the 1780s, “Sir Christopher Wren’s plan for rebuilding the City of London”?



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