1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Sir Christopher Wren

(Part 109)

Sir Christopher Wren

Architecture was in abeyance in this country, again, from the troublous times of Charles I till the restoration of the monarchy in the person of his son, whose French taste would have completely Gallicised the architecture of the nation, if the genius of Sir Christopher Wren has not been present to avert the infliction, or rather to modify it; for it cannot be denied that the influence of the French manner had an effect on the architecture of this country from that period down to the middle of the last century.

Indeed, Wren himself knew the style he practiced mainly from books and the structures of France; and, in consequence of his visit to France, the peculiarities of the French style are obvious in many of his less esteemed works.

Fortunately, however, he was proof against the grosser peculiarities of the Cinquencento, whether in the books of the Italians or in the edifices of the French; and his own productions show that he had imbibed much of the spirit of the antique monuments of Italy, which he could have known only from engravings, and those very imperfect ones.

The field that was opened to his genius by the great fire of London in 1666, and its result, are equally well known. It is true that the general absence of taste and feeling with regard to the Pointed style extended even to him. Wren was guilty of many offences in that respect, besides giving authority to the opprobrious term Gothic; and in no care more so than in the construction of the towers added to Westminster Abbey, which are a lasting proof of his ignorance of its most obvious principles.

Nevertheless, to the influence of our beautiful native style on his mind the architecture of his period is indebted for some of its best works. If Wren had not been accustomed to contemplate the graceful and elegant pyramids or spires of his native country, he would never have originated the tapering steeple, in the composition of which with the materials of Italian architecture he still stands as unrivalled as he was original. Witness the steeples of Bow Church and St Bride’s in London, the former of which is hardly surpassed in grace and elegance by the pointed spires themselves.

It must remain a constant subject of curious speculation, what effect would have been produced on this great head of the English school of Cinquencento architecture if he had known the remains of ancient Greece and Rome from personal observation. With his splendid genius and fine taste, if he had not been imposed on by the specious pretence of the Italo-Vitruvian school, his works might have been models for imitation and study, as they are objects of admiration; as it was, he avoided many of the faults of that school, and improved on many of its beauties.

Although he did not know the Greek style at all, and knew the Roman only through imperfect mediums, and, indeed, had never seen an example of either, whenever he has varied from the Italian practice it has been towards the proportions and peculiarities of the Greek!

The great west front of St Paul’s though it is said to be imitated from that of St Peter’s in Rome, or rather from what it was proposed to be, with the two towers to form its wings, is a much finer, a more imposing, and more classical specimen of architecture than its prototype; for the advantage the latter should have of columns in one height is lost entirely in their poverty, in being of columns in one height is lost entirely in their poverty, and in the miserable arrangement of the whole front, whereas that of St Paul’s is in two noble pseudo-prostyle and recessed porticoes, with the columns fluted, and generally conceived and executed in much better taste than those of St Peter’s.

The entablature, though massive, are finely proportioned, and sufficiently ornate to be elegant; they are too, quite continuous, and the upper one is surmounted by a noble pediment, whose pyramidal form gives at the same time dignity and a finished appearance to the whole front. The coupling of the columns, however, and the putting of one columnar ordinance over another, can only be defended by the practice of the Italian school; though, in the present case, both are rendered less offensive by the judicious management of the architect.

Nothing shows more strikingly the superiority of St Paul’s to St Peter’s as an architectural composition, than a parallel of their flanks. The great magnitude of the latter may strike the vulgar eye with admiration in the contrast; but the rudest taste must appreciate the surpassing merit of the former in the form and arrangement of the cupola, and the noble peristyle, with its unbroken entablature and stylobate, out of which it rises, when compared with the sharper form and depressed substructure of that of St Peter’s.

The superiority of St Paul’s in the composition of the main body of the edifice is not less in degree, though, perhaps, less obvious, than in the superstructure. In the one it is broken and frittered, and in the other almost perfectly continuous, in broad, bold, and effective masses.

The history of the works of Sir Christopher Wren is the history of the architecture of the period in this country; and as it must be admitted that he was not so successful in the composition of the architecture of secular structures as of ecclesiastical. It will follow that our secular edifices of that time are of inferior merit. If it were not indeed an historical fact, it would hardly be credited that Chelsea College, the old College of Physicians in London, and the halls of some of the city companies, are by the architect of Bow Church and St Paul’s.

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