Christopher Wren was born on October 20, 1632, in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England, and died on February 25, 1723, in London. His title was “Sir Christopher Wren.” He was a designer, astronomer, geometrician, and the greatest English architect of his time. Wren designed no less than 53 London churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, as well as many secular buildings of note. Wren was the founder of the Royal Society, serving as president from 1680-82. His scientific work was highly regarded by Issac Newton and Blaise Pascal. He was knighted in 1673.
Wren was the only surviving son of a rector and from an early age, he was always in a fragile state of health. When his father was appointed dean of Windsor, and the Wren family moved into the precincts of the court Wren found himself among the intellectuals around King Charles I. It is here that he first developed his mathematical interests. Their life at Windsor was disturbed by the outbreak of the English Civil Wars in 1642. The deanery was pillaged, and the dean was forced to retire, first to Bristol and then to the country home of his son-in-law, William Holder, in Oxfordshire. Wren was sent to school at Westminster but spent much time under Holder’s tuition, experimenting with astronomy. He translated William Oughtred’s work on sundials into Latin and constructed various astronomical and meteorological devices. It seemed as if the general direction of his studies was toward astronomy, however, there was an important turn toward physiology in 1647 when he met the anatomist Charles Scarburgh. Wren was busy preparing experiments for Scarburgh and made models representing the working of the muscles. One factor that stands out clearly from these early years is Wren’s disposition to approach scientific problems by visual means. His surviving diagrams are beautifully illustrated, and his models are very elegant.
In 1649 Wren went to Wadham College, Oxford, as a “gentleman commoner,” a status that carried certain privileges. He graduated with a B.A. in 1651. At that time Oxford had passed a rigorous purgation of its more conservative elements by the parliamentary government. New men had been introduced, some of whom possessed the great ability and had a special interest in the “experimental philosophy” so eloquently heralded by the scientific philosopher Sir Francis Bacon.
Wren received his M.A. in 1653 and was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in the same year that he began an active period of research and experiment, ending with his appointment as Gresham professor of astronomy in Gresham College, London, in 1657. In the following year, with the death of Oliver Cromwell, Wren returned to Oxford, where he probably remained during the events that led to the restoration of Charles II in 1660. He returned to Gresham College, where scholarly activity resumed.
In 1661 Wren was elected Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford, and in 1669 he was appointed surveyor of works to Charles II. Having dabbled in so many fields of study Wren had not found the one in which he could find complete satisfaction.
One reason Wren turned to architecture may have been the almost complete absence of serious architectural endeavors in England at the time. There were perhaps half a dozen men in England with a reasonable grasp of architecture theory but none with the confidence to bring the art of building- to develop it as an art capable of beneficial scientific inquiry. For Wren, there was a whole field that, given the opportunity, he could dominate.
That opportunity came for him in 1662 as he was engaged in the design of the Sheldoniam Theatre at Oxford. This, the gift of Bishop Gilbert Sheldon of London to his old university was to be a theatre in the classical sense, where university ceremonies would be performed. It followed a classical form, inspired by the ancient Theatre of Marcellus in Rome, but was roofed with timber trusses of novel design. This design combined the classical point of view with the empirical modern design in a way entirely characteristic of a Royal Society mind. At the same time, Sheldon was probably consulting Wren about London’s battered, and in parts, nearly derelict, St Paul’s Cathedral. So, Wren was drawn, deeply and immediately, to the building’s problems. What he desperately needed at that moment was contact with the European tradition of classicism, and he seized a chance to join an embassy proceeding to Paris.
By 1665 architecture at the court of Louis XIV had reached a climax of creativity. The Louvre Palace was approaching completion, and the remodeling of the Palace of Versailles had begun. Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the great sculptor, and the architect were in Paris making designs for the Louvre, and he allowed Wren to peruse his drawings.
At Oxford in the spring of 1666, he made his first design for a dome for St. Paul’s. It was accepted in principle on August 27, 1666. One week later, however, London was on fire. The Great Fire of London reduced two-thirds of the city to a smoking desert and old St. Paul’s Cathedral to a ruin. Between September 5th and 11th, he ascertained the precise area of devastation, worked out a plan for rebuilding the city on a new and more regular line, and submitted it to Charles II. Others also submitted plans, and the king proclaimed on September 13th that a new plan for London would be adopted. No new plan, however, proceeded any further. There were too many problems that were simply not addressed.
In 1669 the king’s surveyor of works died, and Wren was promptly installed. In December he married Faith Coghill and moved to the surveyor’s residence at Whitehall, where he lived, until his dismissal in 1718. In 1670 a second rebuilding act was passed and Wren had nothing
to do with the general process but he did give occasional advice to the city.
While churches were being built, Wren was slowly evolving designs for St. Paul’s. The initial stage is represented by the First Model of 1670, now in the trophy room at the cathedral. This plan was approved by the king, and the demolition of the old church began. When the design seemed too modest, Wren met his critics by producing a design of spectacular grandeur. It failed to satisfy the cannons of St. Paul’s and clerical opinion generally and Wren was compelled to withdraw from the ideal and compromise with the traditional. In 1675 he proposed the rather meager Classical-Gothic Warrant Design, which was at once accepted by the king, and within months building started.
Next, a mystery unfolds. The cathedral that Wren started to build bears only a slight resemblance to the Warrant Design. In 1694 the masonry of the choir was finished and in 1697 the first service was held in the cathedral. However, there was still no dome. The building had been in progress for 22 years and some restless elements in the government seemed to think this too long. As an incentive for more rapid progress, half of Wren’s salary was suspended until the cathedral would be complete. Wren was now sixty-five. Construction was completed in 1710, and in 1711 the cathedral was officially declared to be finished. Wren, 79, petitioned for the withheld moiety of his salary, which was duly paid. The cathedral had been built 35 years under one architect.
His first wife died of smallpox in 1675 leaving him with one young son, Christopher. His second wife, Jane Fitzwilliam (Fitz William), by whom he had a daughter, Jane, and a son, William, died in 1679. In these years he never wholly abandoned his scientific pursuits. He was still at the center of the Royal Society and was its president from 1680 to 1682. He was sufficiently active in public affairs to be returned as a member of Parliament for Old Windsor in 1680 and, although he did not again take his seat, in 1689 and 1690.
Some of the many works by Christopher Wren:
Temple Bar Gate
St. Michael, Cornhill
St. Mary At Hill
St. Edmund King and Martyr
St. Bride’s Church
St. Vedast Foster Lane
St. Nicholas Cole Abbey
St. Stephen Walbrook
St. Paul’s Cathedral
St. Jame’s Church, Piccadilly
King William Court Greenwich Hospital
These are only some of the many accomplishments of the talented Christopher Wren. In his remembrance, he appeared on the reverse of the first British 50-pound banknote (Series D) issued in modern times. The notes were printed between 1981 and 1994 and were in circulation until 1996.
It was only in the 20th century that Wren’s work ceased to be a potent and sometimes controversial factor in English architectural design. The last major architect to have been confessedly dependent on him was Sir Edwin Lutyens who died in 1944. The Wren Society, founded at the bicentenary of Wren’s death in 1923, published 20 volumes of Wren’s
material (1924-43). It was edited by A.T. Bolton and H.D. Hendry.Christopher Wren
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