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Christopher Wren

Christopher WrenBorn: 20-Oct-1632
Birthplace: East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England
Died: 25-Feb-1723
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Paul's Cathedral, London, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Architect

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Designed St. Paul's Cathedral

English architect, the son of a clergyman, was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on the 20th of October 1632; he entered at Wadham College, Oxford, in 1646, took his degree in 1650, and in 1653 was made a fellow of All Souls. While at Oxford Wren distinguished himself in geometry and applied mathematics, and Isaac Newton, in his Principia, speaks very highly of his work as a geometrician. In 1657 he became professor of astronomy at Gresham College, and in 1660 was elected Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford. It is, however, as an architect that Wren is best known, and the great fire of London, by its destruction of the cathedral and nearly all the city churches, gave Wren a unique opportunity. Just before the fire Wren was asked by Charles II to prepare a scheme for the restoration of the old St Paul's. In May 1666 Wren submitted his report and designs (in the All Souls collection), for this work; the old cathedral was in a very ruinous state, and Wren proposed to remodel the greater part, as he said, "after a good Roman manner", and not, "to follow the Gothick Rudeness of the old Design." According to this scheme only the old choir was left; the nave and transepts were to be rebuilt after the classical style, with a lofty dome at the crossing -- not unlike the plan eventually carried out.

In September of the same year (1666) the fire occurred, and the old St Paul's was completely gutted. From 1668 to 1670 attempts were being made by the chapter to restore the ruined building; but Dean Sancroft was anxious to have it wholly rebuilt, and in 1668 he had asked Wren to prepare a design for a wholly new church. This first design, the model for which is preserved in the South Kensington Museum, is very inferior to what Wren afterwards devised. In plan it is an immense rotunda surrounded by a wide aisle, and approached by a double portico; the rotunda is covered with a dome taken from that of the Pantheon in Rome; on this a second dome stands, set on a lofty drum, and this second dome is crowned by a tall spire. But the dean and chapter objected to the absence of a structural choir, nave and aisles, and wished to follow the medieval cathedral arrangement. Thus, in spite of its having been approved by the king, this design was happily abandoned -- much to Wren's disgust; and he prepared another scheme with a similar treatment of a dome crowned by a spire, which in 1675 was ordered to be carried out. Wren apparently did not himself approve of this second design, for he got the king to give him permission to alter it as much as he liked, without showing models or drawings to anyone, and the actual building bears little resemblance to the approved design, to which it is very superior in almost every possible point. Wren's earlier designs have the exterior of the church arranged with one order of columns; the division of the whole height into two orders was an immense gain in increasing the apparent scale of the whole, and makes the exterior of St. Paul's very superior to that of St. Peter's in Rome, which is utterly dwarfed by the colossal size of the columns and pilasters of its single order. The present dome and the drum on which it stands, masterpieces of graceful line and harmonious proportion, were very important alterations from the earlier scheme. As a scientific engineer and practical architect Wren was perhaps more remarkable than as an artistic designer. The construction of the wooden external dome, and the support of the stone lantern by an inner cone of brickwork, quite independent of either the external or internal dome, are wonderful examples of his constructive ingenuity. The first stone of the new St. Paul's was laid on the 21st of June 1675; the choir was opened for use on the 2nd of December 1697; and the last stone of the cathedral was set in 1710.

Wren also designed a colonnade to enclose a large piazza forming a clear space around the church, somewhat after the fashion of Bernini's colonnade in front of St. Peter's, but space in the city was too valuable to admit of this. Wren was an enthusiastic admirer of Bernini's designs, and visited Paris in 1665 in order to see him and his proposed scheme for the rebuilding of the Louvre. Bernini showed his design to Wren, but would not let him copy it, though, as he said, he "would have given his skin" to be allowed to do so.

After the destruction of the city of London Wren was employed to make designs for rebuilding its fifty burnt churches, and he also prepared a scheme for laying out the whole city on a new plan, with a series of wide streets radiating from a central space. Difficulties arising from the various ownerships of the ground prevented the accomplishment of this scheme.

Among Wren's city churches the most noteworthy are St. Michael's, Cornhill; St. Bride's, Fleet Street, and St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, the latter remarkable for its graceful spire; and St. Stephen's, Walbrook, with a plain exterior, but very elaborate and graceful interior. In the design of spires Wren showed much taste and wonderful power of invention. He was also very judicious in the way in which he expended the limited money at his command; he did not fritter it away in an attempt to make the whole of a building remarkable, but devoted it chiefly to one part or feature, such as a spire or a rich scheme of internal decoration. Thus he was in some cases, as in that of St. James's, Piccadilly, content to make the exterior of an almost barnlike plainness.

The other buildings designed by Wren were very numerous. Only a few of the principal ones can be mentioned: the Custom House, the Royal Exchange, Marlborough House, Buckingham House, and the Hall of the College of Physicians -- now destroyed; others which exist are -- at Oxford, the Sheldonian theatre, the Ashmolean museum, the Tom Tower of Christ Church, and Queen's College chapel; at Cambridge, the library of Trinity College and the chapel of Pembroke, the latter at the cost of Bishop Matthew Wren, his uncle. The western towers of Westminster Abbey are usually attributed to Wren, but they were not carried out untill 1735-45, many years after Wren's death, and there is no reason to think that his design was used. Wren (D.C.L. from 1660) was knighted in 1673, and was elected president of the Royal Society in 1680. He was in parliament for many years, representing Plympton from 1685, Windsor from 1689, and Weymouth from 1700. He occupied the post of surveyor of the royal works for fifty years, but by a shameful cabal was dismissed from this office a few years before his death. He died in 1723, and is buried under the choir of St. Paul's; on a tablet over the inner north doorway is the well-known epitaph -- Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Father: (dean of Windsor)
Wife: (d. 1675 smallpox)
Son: Christopher
Wife: Jane Fitzwilliam
Son: William (d. 1679)

    University: BA, Wadham College, Oxford University (1649-51)
    University: MA, Oxford University (1653)
    Fellow: All Soul's College, Oxford University (1653-57)
    Professor: Gresham College, Oxford University (1657-)

    UK Member of Parliament for Plympton (1685-88)
    UK Member of Parliament for Weymouth (1702-05)
    Freemasonry
    Royal Society President (1680-82)
    Knighthood 1673

Is the subject of books:
Parentalia: or, Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, 1750, BY: Christopher Wren
Wren and His Place in European Architecture, 1956, BY: Eduard F. Sekler
Sir Christopher Wren, 1953, BY: John Summerson
The Mathematical Science of Christopher Wren, 1982, BY: J. A. Bennett


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