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Out of the ashes of London

by
24 February 2023

It is 300 years since the death of Sir Christopher Wren. Christine Miles consults historians on his life and work

© National Portrait Gallery

Sir Christopher Wren, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1711 See gallery for more images

Sir Christopher Wren, portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1711 See gallery for more images

HOW do we decide on Britain’s greatest architect? If we were to go simply by hits on Wikipedia, that accolade would go to Sir Norman Foster.

In second place comes Sir Christopher Wren, for whom a series of Wren 300 events examining his work is taking place this year, to commemorate the tercentenary of his death on 25 February 1723. These include dome-building sessions for sixth-formers, walks around Wren churches, and special services of evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral and the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

One of the many questions being asked concerns Wren’s legacy for the present. “I think that’s always one of the questions . . . and there will be events as part of Wren 300 asking that question,” says Dr Michael Paraskos, an art historian and Senior Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication at Imperial College London.

A biographer of Wren, Adrian Tinniswood, says that, had Wren not grown up in revolutionary times — he was ten when the Civil War broke out in 1642 — he would have almost certainly gone into the Church’s ministry. “Not only was his father Rector of East Knoyle, and later Dean of Windsor: his uncle was Bishop Matthew, Bishop of Ely. He’s raised Anglican, in a fairly high Anglican household,” Mr Tinniswood says.

“One of things we know about his father: fairly early on, he decorated the chancel of East Knoyle Church with some fairly elaborate scenes from the Ascension. These were very definitely markers of High Church sympathies; it’s one reason why Wren [senior] got kicked out of the Deanery. . . His uncle was confined to the Tower for 18 years by Cromwell, and narrowly escaped having his head chopped off. So, any ambitions Wren’s family had for him to go into the Church would have been confounded when the Civil War broke out.”

Instead, Wren, “quite a fragile child” and “very, very bright”, was sent to London to lodge with the physician and mathematician Charles Scarborough. “That is crucial to his early development,” Mr Tinniswood says.

Scarborough mixed in a circle that included William Harvey, who discovered blood circulation, and other experimental philosophers and natural scientists, who were starting to question classical understandings of the universe and of the human body. “This group says, ‘Let’s look for ourselves. Let’s see how things work.’ Wren is, in effect, raised in that group.”

When Wren went up to Wadham College, Oxford, in 1650, he was thrown into a circle of experimental philosophers — or what today we would call scientists: John Wilkins, Warden of Wadham and an astronomer; Seth Ward, Professor of Astronomy; Robert Hooke, Wren’s future partner in his architectural practice; and Robert Boyle, regarded today as the first modern chemist. “What Wren is doing is experimenting with them,” Mr Tinniswood says.

Wren left Wadham in 1653, having distinguished himself as an astronomer and physicist, to become a Fellow of All Souls. A career in astronomy and science, and then in engineering and architecture, followed.

Wren’s design portfolio includes Pembroke College Chapel, Cambridge; the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford; St Paul’s Cathedral, and a further 50 churches to replace those destroyed by the Great Fire of London; the library of Trinity College, Cambridg; the Royal Hospital, Chelsea; Greenwich Hospital; and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. He also did the rebuilding work at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. “There’s no English architect that comes close to Wren,” Mr Tinniswood says.

 © Angelo HornakSt Sepulchre

WREN showed no interest in architecture until the mid-1660s. Before that, his achievements include being the first person to carry out a canine splenectomy. He was also, Mr Tinniswood says, probably the first person to use an intravenous injection. “If anyone’s had an IV injection or a blood transfusion, they can thank Wren. He injected opium into [a] spaniel’s lateral saphenous vein [to explore] how poisons and external substances could circulate round the body.”

In 1657, as Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London, Wren developed telescopes to investigate the changing shape of Saturn. “That shape changes, we know now, because the rings around it are seen at different angles at different times. But people didn’t know that then,” Mr Tinniswood says. Wren also built a model of the moon, “so wonderful and so detailed” that King Charles II kept it in his private cabinet at Whitehall Palace.

Before he left Gresham, to move to Oxford as Savilian Professor of Astronomy, in 1661, Wren was also a key player in the formation of the Royal Society, the longest-running scientific institution in the world. Wren served as the Society’s President from 1680 to 1682.

“He’s around at a time when you could know everything — because the body of knowledge was small enough — and find out more,” Mr Tinniswood says. “You could really push back the frontiers of knowledge . . . and the key to it all is the experimental method. If you’ve got a hypothesis, test it; and, if it doesn’t work, jettison it and try another. Don’t rely on second-hand sources — look for yourself.”

© Angelo HornakSt Andrew’s, Holborn

WREN’s Anglican upbringing proved instrumental in his move into architecture. And Wren was an Anglican through and through: “His religion wasn’t Christianity — his religion was Anglicanism,” Mr Tinniswood says.

Wren was still an Oxford professor when he designed Pembroke College Chapel for his uncle, in 1664. A commission to design the Sheldonian Theatre for Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury 1663-77, followed quickly.

“If that sounds odd, it didn’t seem odd in the 17th century. The notion of specialisation in the sciences just didn’t exist. . . It’s sometimes forgotten that, where Wren and other gentlemen architects and amateurs are designing things, it’s the masons who have to make sure they stand up,” Mr Tinniswood says.

Wren’s family connections were a help, as the Revd Dr William Whyte, Professor of Social and Architectural History at the University of Oxford, explains. “Even more [important] than his qualifications as a practical mathematician, is the fact that he has this connection to a family that is very strongly implicated in the Restoration of the monarchy,” he says.

Both Pembroke College Chapel and the Sheldonian are really memorials to the Restoration: of the monarchy and episcopacy, Professor Whyte says. “It’s the coming together of Church, University, and State that fuels Wren’s career.”

 

IF ANGLICANISM secured his first commissions, good fortune helped to land him the project of rebuilding St Paul’s and the City churches.

In 1665, Wren went to France to study contemporary European architecture. “He goes to see what is happening at Versailles, with this Baroque palace that’s still being built. He sees the church at the Sorbonne, which is very influential on him when he’s building St Paul’s. He sees the extension being put on to the Louvre palace,” says Dr Paraskos, who is running a five-week lecture series for Wren 300, starting on 1 March.

“He writes [that] he ‘wishes he could send all Paris back on paper’ to his correspondents in London. He’s learning how to be not just that engineer, but also how to translate all that engineering into fashionable Baroque architecture,” Professor Whyte says. “He also learns how you manage a big architectural project, and, in some ways, that’s one of the most important things he learns: how do you — as a kind of overseeing architect — manage hundreds of people working for you to produce these things?”

Wren’s trip proved providential when, on his return in the summer of 1666, he was brought in to look at repairing Old St Paul’s. Only a week later, on 2 September, the Great Fire started in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, and went on to destroy more than 13,000 homes and 87 of London’s 107 churches, including a significant part of St Paul’s.

Famously, just days after the fire, Wren went to Charles II with his redesign of the city, only to see his plans rejected. But, on the death of the Surveyor General of the King’s Works in 1669, Wren was given the job, and became the architect of the new cathedral.

What remained of St Paul’s after the fire proved impossible to repair, and, in 1670, the entire cathedral was demolished to make way for Wren. “That’s kind of an accident of history. If it hadn’t started falling down, it’s quite possible we’d have restored the Gothic building,” Dr Paraskos says.

The Great Fire was a turning point. As Mr Tinniswood jokes: “I have a friend who is convinced that it’s Wren who started the Great Fire of London, because it was the making of him. It would be interesting to speculate what would have happened to Wren if there hadn’t been the fire: all those churches, the cathedral. . . His earth would have been a lot smaller than it was.”

That Wren remained Surveyor General until 1718 is testament to the man, Mr Tinniswood says. “The fact that Wren held on to that through six reigns — it’s kind of like Henry Kissinger still being Secretary of State under Obama, or something. It shows what a smart political operator he was, that he could be a part of the Establishment and could adapt his views to the prevailing climate.”

While the drawn-out design process for the rebuilding of St Paul’s began, Wren was busy overseeing the rebuilding of other churches. “The whole of the City is largely rebuilt in ten to 15 years,” Dr Paraskos says. “The same is true of the churches: by the end of 1670s, the ones that are going to be built are built.”

© Angelo HornakSt Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe

Professor Whyte notes that Wren approaches the task as a scientist. “But not just as a scientist. He’s part of a broader movement in the late 17th century trying to bring order to the world, in some senses. And that order is Church and State; that order is of social hierarchy; and that order is the order of mathematics and logic, and all these sorts of things in the aftermath of the Civil War. . .

“He writes about the fact that all architecture has aspects of the eternal. He wants to find the rules that are going to govern architecture, just as other people are trying to find the rules that are going to govern how we understand the universe, and how we order society. . .

“In doing that, he turns to Classical architecture, because he believes that that contains within it the rules of how you build well and effectively. . . But Classicism itself is a huge range of styles. What Wren does is to say: ‘Once you found the rules, what can you invent based upon those rules?’. . .

“He draws upon the idea of refining rules and fashion, Baroque fashion — which is for elaboration, which is for ornamentation, which is for decoration — and fuses the two together.”

 

WREN had an important opportunity to decide what the Restoration Church of England should look like, Dr Parakosas says. “Until then, C of E churches had just been a Gothic church, with stained-glass windows and the walls whitewashed. . .

“When you wander around the churches in the City of London, you find him saying: ‘Maybe it looks like this,’ ‘Maybe it looks like this,’ ‘Maybe it looks like this.’ . . . There is a disparate style, but they all sit within a kind of English Baroque style.”

Mr Tinniswood points to the combination of traditions as part of Wren’s success. “The great thing about Wren’s churches is that they combine the deeply Protestant notion of an auditory box, a place where the Word can be preached, a place of learning, where the sermon is everything, combined with an east end that is highly ornamented, which is mysterious, which is where that mystery of the sacrament takes place. They are both hard-line Protestant and Anglo-Catholic . . . which was part of [his] success, I think.”

The churches provided opportunities for experiment which were not available in Wren’s secular building commissions, Professor Whyte says.

“He was able to build churches that were octangular or elliptical, churches with domes, churches with towers. If you look at the full range of the churches built in the aftermath of the Great Fire, you’ve got a series of experiments into how you achieve ‘a church’, which must have been very satisfying for somebody who enjoyed solving those kind of problems.

“And, of course, in St Paul’s you have a building that is enormously important as the first new cathedral built in England, in Britain, since the Reformation — a symbol of London — and it becomes the symbol of England; and this is, quite clearly, his masterwork.”

 

WAS St Paul’s the pinnacle of Wren’s achievements? “Wren is probably the first man in Western Europe, certainly, if not in the world, to have overseen the design and building of a cathedral. Until then, it was the product of more than one lifetime,” Mr Tinniswood observes.

In the 35 years that it took to build St Paul’s, however, fashion changed. “People didn’t like the Baroque in the 18th century. . . By his centenary, in 1823, you start to see a re-evaluation. By the end of the 19th century, it’s being described as the Parish Church of Empire, and then you’ve got this mythical status in the Blitz,” Mr Tinniswood says.

“Wellington’s funeral takes place at St Paul’s Cathedral; George VI launches the Festival of Britain from the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral; when Prince Charles and Diana Spencer launched into their fairytale wedding, they did it at St Paul’s Cathedral. It occupies a particular place, I think, in British culture.”

Wren’s designs for St Paul’s were revised throughout the building period.

“He had a good way of getting his own way,” Dr Paraskos says. “If somebody opposed him, he would go to the opposite extreme and propose something that was clearly very unacceptable, and the compromise would be back where he wanted.

“With St Paul’s, some of them are quite extraordinary. . . You’re looking at them thinking, ‘He obviously never intended for them to be built, because it would not be possible to build it.’”

© Angelo HornakGrinling Gibbons carving, All Hallow’s by the Tower

Mr Tinniswood says that Wren came up with one design that is “frankly a little bit odd”. The second, the Greek Cross design, features “four stubby little arms”. The third design, the Great Model, you can see in St Paul’s today. Then followed the Warrant design, “which is as breathtaking in its ugliness as the Great Model was beautiful. It was absurd; it looks dreadful. And, of course, the Dean and Chapter say, ‘Yes, please.’”

When Charles II signed off the Warrant design in 1675, he gave Wren permission to tweak the design a little “to make Variations, rather ornamental than essential”.

And Wren went on to build the current St Paul’s, with its famous dome, which the church authorities had frowned on. “I suspect what happened is you’ve got changes of personnel,” Mr Tinnswood says. “And he took successive Deans along with him, as he made those changes.”

Wren was knighted in 1673 for services to the Crown in rebuilding London after the Great Fire, but his career ended in the shadows. He walked away from St Paul’s in 1710, when the structure was complete, in dispute over the interior. In 1718, he was sacked as Surveyor General.

“Ultimately, he’s got rid of, because they find irregularities in the accounts . . . partly because it’s not quite clear how you pay an architect in this period,” Professor Whyte explains. “He’s also let go at St Paul’s because he’s very old, so not, probably, quite on top of things.”

Ultimately, though, it was a matter of politics. “Wren is very strongly associated with the Restoration,” Professor Whyte says. “He survives the Glorious Revolution, goes on to work for William and Mary at Hampton Court, and particularly for [Queen] Anne, of course, in the building of the new churches after 1710. But the accession of George I, and the new regime that arrives there, throws Wren’s world into some turmoil. . . Throughout his life, there’s this link between politics and architecture, and, in the end, that’s what does it for him.”

Professor Whyte believes that St Paul’s “is the single biggest and most successful project” that Wren undertook. “It’s the sort of thing that is emblematic of his achievements. But it is also quickly controversial. I mean, lots of people don’t like it, and Wren’s reputation rises and falls through time on the reputation of St Paul’s, more than anything else.”

The Victorians hated the fact that the dome is, in fact, three domes, Professor Whyte says: an outer dome; the inner dome that you see inside; and, supporting both, a brick dome. “For people like Ruskin, this is really dishonest, and a dishonest building is morally corrupting.

“So, St Paul’s is both focused upon as his major achievement, but also as the evidence of his weakness as an architect, by some.”

By the late 19th century, there was a revival in enthusiasm for Wren. “Then he goes again,” Professor Whyte says. “So, he’s someone who is in and out of fashion, and very much out of fashion as he dies. But the body of work is so substantial, and his importance is so great, that there’s always the possibility of a revival.”

Mr Tinniswood says that Wren, when he was about to die, felt that he was a failure. “He said he wished he hadn’t spent his life ‘dabbling with rubble’.”

© Angelo HornakSt Mary-le-Bow
WHAT, then, should we consider Wren’s legacy today? Professor Whyte sees this as two-fold. “We have a series of really important buildings, which are not just important in their own right, but also come to influence other buildings.

“You see lots of Wren churches appearing around the world. Features tend to include a centralised space, whether rectangular, eclipse, or circular; they function as auditories, tend to try to unify church and tower, and usually feature generalised classical details.

“The second thing is that he’s really important in helping to establish the idea of architecture as a separate profession. . . That’s why he remains such a central figure for architects ever since. Not until the Architects Registration Act (1931) do you get legislation defining what an architect is. Until then, anyone can call themselves an architect.”

That Wren’s team were mostly “anonymous draughtsmen” doing the dogsbody work is not remarkable. “It’s kind of like a modern architecture practice, albeit under state, or royal, patronage,” Dr Paraskos says.

Professor Whyte adds: “Wren becomes the model. Did he draw it out? No. Did he build it? No. How is it a Wren church? Because he — the architect — conceptualised it.”

For Dr Paraskos, his legacy is that Wren hybridised science and architecture. ”When you start thinking about education policy in this country, increasing specialisation on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics], well, there is no evidence that Wren — one of our greatest scientists, one of our greatest architects — would have approved of that. He wasn’t just interested in STEM: he was interested in the arts; he was interested in architecture; he was interested in aesthetics. It’s all of these things interconnected.”

For Mr Tinniswood, it is that we see Wren’s London in today’s city. Of his remaining churches, he says: “There are so many of them. St Stephen Walbrook, my favourite Wren church, is a bubble of joy — it’s incredible. His sense of proportion, his sense of controlled theatre. It’s not the Baroque excesses of some of his later followers: he’s a cerebral man, and it’s cerebral architecture. It repays being visited again and again.”

“It’s very difficult to imagine someone who has had more impact on British architecture,” Dr Paraskos says. “Was he the greatest architect we’ve ever produced?”

Professor Whyte considers. “I don’t know, but I think he was probably the most important.”


wren300.org

Adrian Tinniswood is the author of His Invention So Fertile: A life of Christopher Wren, published by Jonathan Cape at £30 (Church Times Bookshop £27); 978-0-71267-364-8.

An “Introduction to Christopher Wren” lecture series is fully booked, but is also available online at: www.imperial.ac.uk/adult-ed

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