1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Christopher Wren

Sir Christopher Wren
English architect and scientist
(1631-1723)




SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN (1631-1723), the son of a clergyman, was born at East Knoyle, Wiltshire, in 1631; 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; 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 scope for his talent such as probably no architect has ever had to the same extent. 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 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 Go thick 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 which was eventually carried out.
In September of the same year (1666) the fire occurred, and the old St Paul's was completely gutted, though the greater part of its Avails still remained standing. From 1668 to 1670 attempts were being made by the chapter to restore the ruined building; but Dean Sancroft was anxious to have the cathedral 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. This plan was devised as being specially suitable to the needs of a Protestant church, but the dean and chapter objected to the absence of a structural choir, nave, and aisles, and wished to follow the mediaeval cathedral arrangement, at least as far as concerned the ] ilan. 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 had, however, been much hampered by ignorant interference, and apparently
E N 689
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 any one. Wren fully availed himself of this permission, 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.4 The present very graceful 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 Wren's constructive ingenuity. The first stone of the new St Paul's was laid on June 21, 1675; the choir was opened for use December 2, 1697; and the last stone of the cathedral was set in 1710. The stone used is from the Portland quarries ; the wooden dome is covered with lead, not copper as was at first proposed. The fine oak stalls were carved by Grinling Gibbons, who received ¿61333, 7s. 5d. for them. The whole cost of the cathedral was £1,167,474,—of which £810,181 was pro-vided.by the London import duty on coal.5
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 accom-plishment of this scheme.
Among Wren's city churches the most noteworthy are St Michael's, Cornhill; St Bride's and St Mary le Bow, Fleet Street, 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 decora-tion. Thus he was in some cases, as in that of St James's, Piccadilly, content to make the exterior of an almost barn-like plainness.
The other buildings designed by Wren were very numer-ous. 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
4 Proportionally the apparently greater size of St Paul's is very remarkable; it is very difficult to realize that the top of the dome of St Paul's is only as high as the springing of that of St Peter's. In actual fact the one looks about as high as the other.
6 Wren also designed a colonnade to enclose a large piazza forming a clear space round 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 pro-posed 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.

the chapel of Pembroke, the Lcter at the cost of Bishop Matthew Wren, his uncle. The western towers of West-minster Abbey are usually attributed to Wren, but they were not carried out till 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 1681. He was in parliament for many years, representing Plympton from 1685, Windsor from 1689, and Weymofith from 1700. He occupied the post of surveyor of the royal works for fifty years, but by a shameful cabal was dis-missed 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."
Wren's genius as an artist is very difficult to estimate; he lived at a most unhappy time, when architecture had sunk almost to its lowest point of degradation. If, how-ever, we bear this in mind we must admit that he was an artist of very remarkable ability; his inventive genius no one can dispute.
WRESTLING AND BOXING. Wrestling is the art of forcing an antagonist to the ground without resorting to blows or kicks. It is a trial of strength and skill between two opponents standing face to face, who strive to throw one another. As a gymnastic exercise it was greatly encouraged among the ancient Greeks, and the highest honours and rewards were bestowed on the victors at the Olympic, Isthmian, Nemean, and other games (see GAMES). It was also cultivated by the Romans, though their tastes inclined to more savage and brutalizing exhibitions than that of wrestling. It was not unknown in Egypt and at Nineveh, as may be seen from the sculptures in the British Museum. At the same time it differed very much in its ancient form from the wrestling of to-day, the wrestlers of old being wont to compete almost if not quite nude, their bodies besmeared with oil or some other kind of grease by way of making their muscles supple; but, as this practice rendered it very difficult to get fair hold of one another, the wrestlers were accustomed to use sand on their hands, or even to roll in the dust of the arena as a corrective. In their contests they took hold of each other by the arms, drew forward, pushed backward, used many con-tortions of the body, interlocked their limbs, seized one another by the neck, throttled, lifted each other off the ground, and butted like rams, though the chief point of their art was to become master of their opponent's legs, when a fall was the immediate result. In England the pastime has been popular from an early period, more especially in the Middle Ages, for in 1222, in Henry III.'s reign, it is on record that a wrestling match took place between the men of Westminster and the citizens of London in St Giles Fields, the latter winning easily. The return match was held at Westminster on Lammas day following, but was interrupted by the bailiff of West-minster and his associates, who maltreated the Londoners and drove them into the city. At a later period Clerken-well was the usual trysting place. At one of the matches there in 1453 another riot occurred, and the lord mayor,
For further information the reader should consult the Parentalia,
published by Wren's grandson in 1750, an account of the Wren
family and especially of Sir Christopher and his works ; also the
two biographies of Wren by Elmes and Miss Phillimore; Milman,
Annals of St Paul's, 1868 ; and Longman, Three Cathedrals dedi-
cated to St Paul in London, 1873, pp. 77 sq. See also Clayton,
Churches of Sir C. Wren, 1848-49 ; Taylor, Towers and Steeples
of Wren, London, 1881; and Niven, City Churches, London, 1887,
illustrated with fine etchings. In the library of All Souls at Oxford
are preserved a large number of drawings by Wren, including the
designs for almost all his chief works, and a fine series showing his
various schemes for St Paul's Cathedral. (J. H.#M.)


Footnotes

" Newton, in his Principia, p. 19, ed. of 1713, speaks very highly of Wren's work as a geometrician.
Wren's drawing for this exists in the All Souls collection.

The Royal Society possesses a good portrait of Wren by Kueller.






Search the Encyclopedia:



About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Sitemaps
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us



© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries