It was the works and influence of Christopher Wren that spread Classicism and gave it firm roots in a very English form. Wren’s London buildings made a mark on the city and its surroundings which has not been exceeded by any architect until modern times and has been approached by only one or two.
The list of his works in and around London amounts to seventy buildings designed by him, while about another ten have been attributed to him without documentary proof. Nearly fifty of these buildings still exist- including a cathedral, palatial works for the king, houses, an observatory, monuments and numerous churches.
Quite apart from his architectural work, Wren’s contribution to science was tremendous, and his intellect was one of the most intriguing ever produced by this country.
He was born on the 20th October 1632 at East Knoyle in Wiltshire, where his father was rector at the time. His father was a high churchman and had been a Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford, so the family had many friends in the academic world. In 1634 the family moved to Windsor, where the father became Dean.
Wren was a delicate boy and had a tutor in his early years. At the age of nine, he was sent to Westminster School where he studied under the famous Dr Busby, who was noted for both his severity and his ability as a brilliant tutor. At the age of fourteen, his interest in mathematics had first been awakened by his brother-in-law, William Holder. But his abilities were developed by his teacher Dr Scarburg.
After obtaining his B.A. in 1651 and his M.A. two years later, Wren was elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford at the age of 21. He was short in height and the many portraits of him show a sensitive, clever face. Apart from his theoretical studies, Wren was continuously inventing such ingenious machines as a writing duplicator, a transparent beehive and a multiple stocking-weaving loom.
In 1657 he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in the City of London, but Cromwell died in the following year and Wren returned to All Souls during the resulting period of unrest. He stayed there until the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660.
After the Restoration, Wren returned to Gresham College and so was able to move in London circles on the verges of the Court and political power. He was one of the most active of the dozen or so Gresham men who organised the Royal Society and obtained a royal charter for it in the year that King Charles II returned to the throne. When the King asked for a model of the moon, Wren made it, and this confirmed him as a favourite in intellectual matters.
He refused the King’s invitation at that time to survey the defences of Tangier, but this is the first indication that his talents might be employed in practical affairs.
Only two years later Wren (now Professor of Astronomy at Oxford) designed his first building, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, which already shows a typical blend of classical theory with his own practical ingenuity.
His understandable naivety in architecture can be seen in the dome and spire he proposed about the same time when he was asked to survey the old St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was again in a decayed state despite the work Inigo Jones had done on it in the 1630s.
But in 1665 Wren was able to increase his architectural knowledge by studying works of foreign masters at first hand.
The journey he made to Paris that year at the age of 33 was for a special purpose of studying French architecture, and it seems to have been the only time that Wren went abroad. The timing was fortunate because it meant that Wren was out of England during the year of the Great Plague and also because architecture in France was at a peak with the great works built by Louis XIV and Colbert to celebrate the glory of France.
Of the great architects, Francois Mansart was in the last year of his life, but Louis le Vau was in his prime. Wren also met the great Italian, Bernini, who gave him a few minutes to study his Louvre designs which were never executed.
Perhaps because of the plague, Wren did not return to England until March 1666, and he immediately produced another design for restoring St. Paul’s, including a dome. But in September of that year, the whole outlook changed when the Fire of London burned for days, leaving a huge area of the City in ruins and the Cathedral a burnt-out shell of walls.
There was no shyness in Wren’s behaviour now. The fire had started on 1 st September and ten days later he submitted his plan for re-building central London to the King. This plan was never carried out, or London would now be a city of wide boulevards linking important points such as the Royal Exchange and St. Paul’s with a number of large new piazzas. But it was too sweeping for its time—Londoners wanted to re-build their houses where they had previously stood.
As Summerson observed, Sir Christopher Wren had died at the age of thirty he would still have been remembered but his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography would have not only listed his works as a scientist or a mathematician but also as an architect.
Wren was one of the King’s three representatives on the committee of six appointed to supervise the rebuilding, and three years later he was appointed the King’s Surveyor at the age of 37.
The appointment put him in a fairly prosperous financial position for the first time in his life, for it was salaried and with it went a good house beside Whitehall Palace. He immediately took the opportunity to get married in December to Faith Coghill, whom he had probably known for many years. They had two sons and seem to have been quite happy until Faith died of smallpox two years after Wren was knighted in 1673.
Recognition of Work
Wren had no appointment in the City of London, but as the Royal Surveyor, he was entrusted with the designing of the new churches which had to be built for the City and the re-building of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1670 Parliament passed an Act to raise funds for these buildings by a Coal Tax.
Money came in only gradually, but work on the churches started that year. St. Paul’s Deanery (1670), tucked away in Dean’s Court nearly opposite the entrance to the Cathedral, dates from this early period and has been attributed to Wren, but without evidence.
One of the greatest masterpieces by the architect is said to be the St. Paul’s Cathedral, Ludgate Hill, which was completed in 1710.
He built the famous Sheldonian Theater, Oxford in 1669 and many other, some of Sir Christopher Wren’s works are listed below –
Sir Christopher Wren’s famous works
Other Works of Sir Christopher Wren
Trinity College Library, Cambridge (1684)
St. Augustine, London (Watling Street), 1692
William and Mary College, USA (1696)
St. Michael, London (1715)