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Title: The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration, vol. 06, No. 11, November 1900 - The Work of Sir Christopher Wren
Author: Various
Language: English
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*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration, vol. 06, No. 11, November 1900 - The Work of Sir Christopher Wren" ***

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                          THE BROCHURE SERIES
                              The Work of
                         Sir Christopher Wren
                            NOVEMBER, 1900


                            BROCHURE SERIES

                   1900.      NOVEMBER      No. 11.

                              THE WORK OF
                         SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN

During the reign of James I. the Renaissance style in England, which in
Elizabeth's time had been mingled in picturesque combination with the
Gothic, was further developed, losing year by year more of the Gothic
features and becoming purer as the Classic models and literature became
better known. The Anglo-Classic, or fully evolved English Renaissance
style, arose only, however, with the advent of the celebrated Inigo
Jones, who brought to his work the fruits of long study in Italy,
and a thorough knowledge of the work of Palladio who was his master
in design. During his life Jones' influence was paramount, and up
to the time of the Commonwealth he had a practical monopoly of the
architectural profession in England. His work was taken up where he
left it by an architect on the whole, more remarkable--one of the
most remarkable figures, indeed, that architecture has produced--Sir
Christopher Wren, whose influence after the Restoration was even
more complete than that of Jones had been before it. No building of
importance was erected in England during the last forty years of the
seventeenth century, of which Wren was not the architect. To Americans,
moreover, Wren's work has an especial interest. Our own Colonial
style, particularly in the architecture of churches, was in no slight
degree based upon models which he originated, and he has not without
justification been called the "father of the American Colonial style."

Sir Christopher Wren was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on October
20, 1632. He was the son of Christopher Wren, rector of East Knoyle.
He early showed a taste for natural science and mathematics, and up to
his twenty-ninth year devoted himself with great genius to scientific
pursuits. His fame rests chiefly on his architectural achievements, but
had his philosophical pursuits not been interfered with by the arduous
profession to which he later devoted himself he could not have failed
of securing a scientific position higher than that attained by any of
his contemporaries, with of course one exception, Newton. Hooke in his
"Micrographia" wrote of him, "I must affirm that scarce ever met in
one man such a mechanical hand and so philosophical a mind." He made
elaborate drawings to illustrate the anatomy of the brain, invented
an instrument for planting, a method of making fresh water at sea,
produced a scheme for the graphical construction of solar and lunar
eclipses and occultation of stars, and solved a problem proposed by
Pascal to the geometers of England. The practical use of the barometer
as connected with the weather is attributed to him, though it was not
commonly used as a weather glass until a much later date. He invented
a method for transfusion of blood, experimented scientifically in the
force of gunpowder, and made innumerable other like experiments and


The first definite information we have of his applying himself
professionally to architecture, is his acceptance in his twenty-ninth
year of an invitation from Charles II. to act practically as
surveyor-general to his majesty's works, though nominally as assistant
to Sir Charles Denham. It is clear, however, that he must have already
given proof of fitness before such an appointment could have been


The two earliest original works we hear of are the chapel of Pembroke
College Cambridge, built at the expense of his uncle, and the
Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. The chapel was finished in two years, but
the Sheldonian Theatre not till 1669. We may therefore take Pembroke
Chapel as his first original work, and it need occasion no surprise
if we find in it signs of the 'prentice hand. Wren evidently felt
the need of better opportunities for study, and took the earliest
opportunity available to him to supply it by his journey to Paris in
1665, when ordinary business in London and in other parts of England
was interrupted by the plague. This journey to France, where he seems
to have resided for about six months, is the only one of which any
information exists.

The architectural detail of the Sheldonian Theatre, though still not
commendable, is much in advance of that of Pembroke Chapel; but its
completion did not take place until 1669, and Wren had had by then more
time for education in correct classical expression. He was thus in
some measure prepared both by study and by practical experience when
the great opportunity of his life presented itself. The great fire of
London broke out in 1666.

Before the embers of the great fire had cooled, Wren, as virtual
surveyor-general, had prepared a scheme for the rebuilding of the city.
The fire raged from the second to the eighth of September, and during
those six days, four hundred and sixty entire streets, eighty-nine
churches, and over thirteen thousand houses were swept away. On the
twelfth of September, Wren laid before the king a sketch plan of his
design for the restoration of the metropolis. It is the plan of what
would have become a magnificent city, but the public spirit which
would have been required to carry it out would have demanded great
sacrifices of present interest for the sake of future benefit; and a
more hand-to-mouth expedient was necessarily adopted. But Wren found
employment enough in his official capacity in designing, supervising
and rebuilding a cathedral, more than fifty parish churches, thirty-six
of the Companies' halls, the custom house, beside several private
houses and provincial works.


In regard to the Cathedral, Wren gave an unhesitating opinion that
nothing but an entirely new structure ought to be contemplated. This
advice was not at once taken, but the fall of a part of the Cathedral
where repair was being attempted gave convincing proof of the wisdom
of his judgment, and in 1668 he was summoned to London from Oxford
(where he was still a professor of astronomy) to advise respecting
a new edifice. The taking down of the old walls--in which Wren was
wonderfully ingenious in inventing devices,--lasted through part of
1668; and in 1673 Wren, who had meantime been knighted, submitted his
first design for the new Cathedral,--a design which he himself wrote
that he considered "antique and well studied, conformable to the best
style of Greek and Roman architecture." The king greatly approved of
it, and a commencement of it was actually made, but so much clerical
opposition was brought to bear on account of its being different from
the usual cathedral shape that Wren was reluctantly obliged to turn
his thoughts in another direction; and he proceeded with several trial
plans in Gothic form. One of these was accepted, and he was ordered
by a royal commission, dated May, 1675, to proceed with it. The
authorization was accompanied by the permission to make variations,
"rather ornamental than essential"; but happily, as the whole was left
to his management, he found himself able to make use of this permission
without troubling himself as to the qualification as to essentials.


There is no concealing the point that if the design which the king's
warrant authorized had been carried out unaltered, St. Paul's would,
externally at least, have proved a gigantic failure. In design we may
perceive that there was in Wren's mind a struggle between two ideas
as respects the great central feature of the dome,--namely, that of
retaining the fine and well studied internal proportions of his first
design, and at the same time attaining the quality of great loftiness
demanded for the external appearance. This he proposed to attain by
means of a lofty spire; but before long he abandoned this attempt and
adopted the idea of general height as the leading principle, by which
he ultimately arrived at the unrivalled exterior of the Cathedral.

Now that he was fully authorized to proceed, Wren devoted all his
energies to maturing his design, and many studies are extant which show
the steps by which he arrived at the final result. He had no doubt a
sufficiently clear general idea in his mind's eye of what the complete
structure should be, but these studies show that the details of even
such essential features as the profile of the dome and the western
towers were not settled until the time approached when they would be

For thirty-five years work was continued on the immense edifice, the
third largest church in Christendom, under Wren's sole supervision, and
in 1710 Sir Christopher, who had been a year old when the first stone
was laid, now laid the last stone of the lantern above the dome. The
scene could hardly be better painted than in the works of Dean Milman:


"All London had poured forth for the spectacle, which had been publicly
announced, and were looking up in wonder to the old man ... who was
on that wondrous height setting the seal, as it were, to his august
labors. If in that wide circle which his eye might embrace there
were various objects for regret and disappointment; if, instead of
beholding the various streets of the city, each converging to its
centre, London had sprung up and spread in irregular labyrinths of
close, dark, intricate lanes; if even his own Cathedral was crowded
upon and jostled by mean and unworthy buildings; yet, on the other
hand, he might survey, not the Cathedral only, but a number of stately
churches which had risen at his command and taken form and dignity
from his genius and skill. On one side the picturesque steeple of
St. Mary-le-Bow; on the other the exquisite tower of St. Bride's.
Beyond, and on all sides, if more dimly seen, yet discernible by his
partial eyesight (he might even penetrate to the inimitable interior
of St. Stephen's Walbrook), church after church, as far as St.
Dunstan's-in-the-East, perhaps Greenwich, may have been vaguely made
out in the remote distance; and all this one man had been permitted to
conceive and execute; a man not originally destined or educated for an
architect, but compelled as it were by the public necessities to assume
the office, and so to fulfil it as to stand on a level with the most
consummate masters of the art in Europe, and to take his stand on an
eminence which his English successors almost despaired of attaining."


But though his most notable achievement, the building of St. Paul's
had only absorbed a fraction of Wren's amazing energy, it would be
impossible even to catalogue his achievements in our present space.


Temple Bar was rebuilt from his designs about 1670-72. This historic
Bar had formerly served as a sort of official entrance to the city,
and when the reigning sovereign visited London on state occasions he
was wont, in accordance with an ancient custom, to wait there till the
Lord Mayor gave him permission to pass it,--a formal acknowledgment
of the rights of the freemen of the city. (The photograph of Sir
Christopher's Temple Bar shown in Plate LXXXIX. was made in 1877,
one year before the arch was demolished to permit the widening of the
street.) In 1684 Wren was appointed by Charles II. as comptroller
of works in the Castle of Windsor, and besides all these spheres of
activity he took some part in politics, and was three times elected to


Of the fifty-two churches which Wren built in London, and of which a
considerable number have been demolished, every one that remains is a
valuable study in planning, and they show the greatest skill in their
adaptation to irregular sites and their suitability for Protestant
worship. In all of them the main proportions are excellent, but minor
details are not in all good alike. Nothing that has been achieved in
modern architecture has surpassed the beauty of their spires, not only
from the elegance of each, but from their complete variety, and at the
same time their harmony with one another. Indeed Wren may be called
the inventor of the English Renaissance type of steeple, in which a
conical or pyramidal spire is harmoniously added to belfry on a square
tower with classical details. Two of these churches in particular are
especially good examples of his genius,--namely St. Mary-le-Bow and St.
Stephen's Walbrook.


St. Mary-le-Bow, or simply Bow church (so named after an earlier church
on the same site, borne upon stone arches, or "bows"), was one of the
most historic structures of old London. "Bow bells" hung in its tower,
and served the city as a curfew; and persons born within the sound of
them were considered true Londoners or "cockneys." Sir Christopher's
church on the same site and called by the same name, was commenced
in 1671 and completed six years later. The exterior is so much closed
in with houses that only a plain solid outside was required, and Wren
expended his chief architectural effort on a steeple, of which Mr.
Fergusson has written: "There are errors of detail which probably
the architect himself would have avoided in a second attempt, and,
as they arose only from an imperfect knowledge of classical details,
might easily be remedied at the present day. It only wants this slight
revision to harmonize what little incongruities remain, and, if this
were done, this steeple might challenge comparison with any Gothic
example ever erected. No modern steeple can compare with it either for
beauty of outline or the appropriateness with which classical details
are applied to so novel a purpose."


St. Stephen's Walbrook, commenced in 1672 and finished in 1679, like
St. Mary-le-Bow has a plain exterior, and for the same reason; but
Fergusson has rightly praised the interior for its originality, and
as "the most pleasing of any Renaissance church that has yet been
erected." The plain exterior tower was surmounted by a beautiful
spire. One of Wren's principles was, that when sufficient funds were
not available for the elaboration of the whole of a design, some one or
more important features should be worked up to a higher standard than
the rest, instead of adopting a lower standard for the whole.


Another of Wren's most admired steeples is that for St. Bride's in
Fleet Street, built in 1701. The upper stories of it have, however,
been criticised because of their sameness and the want of connection
between them. Another famous spire is that which he built in 1699 for
the church of St. Dunstan's-in-the-East.

In 1698 Wren was appointed surveyor to Westminster Abbey, and proceeded
to carry out very important repairs. He built the central tower as we
see it, and intended that it should have been surmounted by a lofty
spire. The western towers which formed part of the project have been
built, but not as he intended. The general proportion of the towers
alone is Wren's.

The "Monument," the Roman Doric column which commemorates the great
fire, was built by Wren, between 1671 and 1678. He had at first
intended that it should be left hollow from top to bottom to serve as
a vertical telescope tube for astronomical purposes, but its height
proved insufficient for this. There was great debate about the ornament
for the summit. Wren wished it to be a large statue as "carrying much
dignity with it, and being more valuable in the eyes of foreigners and
strangers," but this project was abandoned on account of the expense,
and the present ornament, a flaming vase of gilt bronze, substituted.
"The great inequality of Wren's achievement," writes Fergusson, "is
nowhere more marked than in a comparison of this Monument, which is
one of the most successful Classical columns that have been erected in
Europe, with Temple Bar, which is perhaps the most unsuccessful attempt
ever made to reproduce a Classical triumphal archway."

In 1677 he commenced the library of Trinity College, Cambridge. The
work, which was not finished till 1692, is one of the handsomest
buildings in England, remarkable externally for breadth and correctness
of style, and internally as a model of excellent arrangement. In design
it is not unlike the much admired Library of Ste. Genéviève in Paris.
To Greenwich Hospital he contributed gratuitously the design for two
noble blocks of buildings completely in harmony with the earlier
portion by Inigo Jones.


He was long engaged on extensive works on Hampton Court Palace, where,
at the desire of Queen Mary, the old buildings were in part pulled down
and two sets of royal apartments built. The queen, though she amused
herself with planning the gardens and making suggestions, had yet the
wisdom to defer to Wren's better taste and knowledge. Her husband, with
characteristic obstinacy, insisted on his own ideas, thereby dwarfing
the cloisters and marring much of the architecture. It is, however,
fair to say that King William always owned that the defects were his,
the merits, Wren's; and these merits are very great, for in spite of
defects of detail, the general design is one remarkable for dignity and
breadth of conception.


Having been appointed by the Stuarts to the office of
surveyor-general, Wren retained the royal favor unclouded through the
reigns of William and Mary, and Queen Anne; but on the accession of the
Hanoverian family in 1714, the jealousies which his high position had
created were able to prevail against him. At first he was subjected to
repeated annoyances, but, after having endured these for four years,
during which time he was able to complete the fabric of St. Paul's, he
was finally superseded in 1718. Wren after this retired from practical
business (he was eighty-six years old), retaining only the supervision
of Westminster Abbey, which he held until his death.


For the last five years of his life Wren resided much at his house in
Hampton Court, which he held on a lease from the crown. Once a year it
was his habit to be driven to London and to sit for a while under the
dome of his own Cathedral; on one of these journeys he caught a cold,
and soon afterwards, on February 25, 1723, his servant, thinking Sir
Christopher slept longer after dinner than was his wont, came into the
room, and found his master dead in his chair. He was ninety-one years
old. On the fifth of March he was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral,
under the south aisle of the choir, and in his honor an inscription
was placed at the entrance to the choir ending with the words, "Si
monumentum requiris, circumspice."

Sir Christopher's personal appearance is only known to us through
pictures: it appears that he was mild yet dignified of countenance, and
"thin and low of stature."

"Though he did fail sometimes," writes Mr. Fergusson, "it cannot be
denied that Wren was a giant in architecture, and, considering the
difficulties he had to contend with, not only from the age in which
he lived, but from the people he had to deal with, and the small
modicum of taste or knowledge that prevailed anywhere, we may well
be astonished at what he did accomplish that was good, rather than
wonder at his occasional failures. His greatest praise, however, is,
that though he showed the way and smoothed the path, none of his
successors have surpassed--if, indeed, any have equalled--him in what
he did, though more than a century has now elapsed since his death,
and numberless opportunities have been offered in every department of
architectural art."

                            Brochure Series
                           Competition "P."

Competition "P." the details of which are printed on an advertising
page of this issue, closes on Dec. 15, 1900. The prize awards will be
announced in January.


                          Transcriber's Note:

Small capitals have been rendered in full capitals.

A number of minor spelling errors have been corrected without note.

*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Brochure Series of Architectural Illustration, vol. 06, No. 11, November 1900 - The Work of Sir Christopher Wren" ***

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