Sir Christopher Wren: Architect in Context

During the Blitz on London in 1940 the survival of the dome of St. Paul's cathedral became associated with the survival of Britain and Winston Churchill declared St. Paul's to be 'the parish church of the British Empire.' St. Paul's is recognized as the crowning achievement in the career of Sir Christopher Wren and he devoted over fifty years of his long life to the restoration of the old cathedral and the building of a new one after the Great Fire of London in 1666. But St. Paul's was only one project amongst many in Wren's life and this course is intended to be an introduction to that life in all its multi-faceted complexity.

Wren was born into a wealthy and successful family. His uncle, Matthew Wren, had been Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, and, eventually, Bishop of Ely. His father, also called Christopher, was Dean of Windsor and a member of the court of Charles I, for the young Christopher the future seemed assured. However, in 1642 disaster struck in the shape of the English Civil War. As servants of the monarchy and a style of Anglican churchmanship anathema to the Parliamentarians the Wrens were obvious targets. Uncle Matthew was to spend 18 years in the Tower of London, whilst Christopher Wren Sr. lost his post at Windsor and his home and ended his days a political refugee living with his daughter and son-in-law near Oxford.

Young Christopher was sent away to Westminster school and, eventually, entered Wadham College, Oxford. From an early age he had been recognized as something of a prodigy and at Oxford he soon became a member of the 'invisible college' established by the Warden of Wadham, John Wilkins. Wren became a Fellow of All Souls at the age of 21 and a Professor at Gresham College at 25. In 1661, at the age of 29, he was appointed the second Savilian Professor of Mathematics at Oxford.

With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Christopher Wren came into his own and was to play a leading role in the transfer of the 'invisible college' to London where, in 1662, it was given a royal charter as the Royal Society. It seemed that Wren was set on a course which would make him one of the foremost scientists and philosophers of his generation.

However, in the early 1660s Matthew Wren commissioned his nephew to build a new chapel for his old Cambridge college, Pembroke, and at the same time his friend Gilbert Sheldon, now Archbishop of Canterbury, commissioned Wren to design a theatre in Oxford for University ceremonies. We will discuss why Christopher Wren, hitherto a scientist and mathematician, should have been entrusted with these architectural commissions.

But the event which really made Wren was the Great Fire of 1666. Very few architects have the opportunity to re-create a great city almost from scratch. Wren was responsible for a host of city churches and, of course, St. Paul's cathedral and we will spend some time studying these buildings, their design and construction etc.

In 1669 Wren was appointed Surveyor-General of the King's Works, which meant he was responsible for all royal buildings and new projects commissioned by the crown. We will look at his work for Charles II at Chelsea and Winchester and for William and Mary at Kensington, Hampton Court and Greenwich.

Whilst study his surviving works we will also be asking questions about what the buildings tell us about the man. Why was the classical tradition of architecture so important? What does the design of the city churches tell us about the sort of religion practiced in them? How did Wren manage so many major building projects, work with so many patrons and clients and, no inconsiderable feat, win the confidence and support of five different monarchs? Our course will end with a consideration of Wren's legacy, influence and reputation.

The dome of St. Paul's stands as a lasting monument to Wren's genius, but, as I hope this course will demonstrate, that genius both reflected and shaped the society and time in which Wren lived and worked.

Dr Andrew Lacey
July 2020

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