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Wren as portrayed by Hugh Bonneville
Local Lives - Sir Christopher Wren
By Jane Curran
Sir Christopher Wren is a well known architect, but his other talents and local connections make him an interesting Oxfordshire character.
Sir Christopher Wren, 1632 - 1723
When you hear the name Christopher Wren, what do you think of? St. Paul’s Cathedral in London? Tom Tower at Christ Church in Oxford? The rebuilding of the City of London after the Great Fire in 1666? As possibly the best known English architect ever, he was responsible for all of these, but did you know that he was also a mathematician, an astronomer, an anatomist, a designer of many different types of instruments and a talented scientific illustrator? That he pioneered intravenous injections and even blood transfusions? His great friend and fellow scientist Robert Hooke said of him that never since the ancient Greeks had one man combined “such a mechanical hand and so philosophical a mind”. No wonder he became a founder member, and later president, of the Royal Society.
And to top all these accomplishments, he was an Oxford man! His early childhood was spent mainly at Windsor Castle, where his father was Dean, and where he enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle close to the family of Charles I, and was aware of the comings and goings of the movers and shakers of the day. With the outbreak of the Civil War, this came to an end – his Anglican, royalist father and uncle were stripped of their livings, land and income by Oliver Cromwell, and his family came to live in Oxford when the King set up his court at Christ Church. After Charles fled Oxford in 1646, Wren’s father moved the family to Bletchingdon, near Bicester, where his daughter, Susan, was the wife of the Rector.
Susan Holder, Wren’s sister, was renowned for her skills at nursing the sick and preparing simples or drugs in her stillroom, and it was probably here that Wren’s interest in medicine began, along with his work in designing labour-saving devices, even though he was still only an adolescent. His father had taken him out of Westminster School because he could no longer afford the fees, so the precociously bright, tirelessly curious boy used every opportunity to exercise his mind and hands, perfecting a seed drill for sowing corn, for instance.
In 1650 Christopher Wren was accepted at Wadham College at Oxford by the Warden, John Wilkins, a man remarkably free from political bigotry, and who was to become his mentor, but he continued to live in Bletchingdon as it was cheaper than living in college. He was soon offered a fellowship at All Souls College as a result of some mathematical papers he had produced and later became Bursar there. He made a sundial for the college, which has recently been restored, and is resplendent on the south wall of the college library in Radcliffe Square.
Wren designed Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre
At Wadham, John Wilkins gathered around him gentlemen who were passionate about the practical applications of science, not just theory, and who threw themselves wholeheartedly into experimentation of all kinds, and they adopted the young Wren as their assistant and mascot. As well as much more serious work, Wren also built some ingenious transparent beehives for Wilkins’ garden – three storeys high, they were like a palace, and much admired by visitors. The medics and scientists included William Harvey, who had discovered the circulation of the blood and his colleague, Thomas Willis; Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle, and after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, they formed the prestigious scientific body, The Royal Society.
In 1661, Wren was appointed Savilian Professor of Astonomy at Oxford, and made a wonderfully detailed Lunar Globe out of pasteboard for the King. It can be seen in the portrait of Wren in the Sheldonian Theatre, which he designed for the ceremonies of the University - and for the performance of plays - in 1663. A tremendous and novel feat of engineering was the painted ceiling which has a span of 72 feet but no visible means of support – it is suspended from trusses in the roofspace. The theatre was also to house (very inconveniently) the presses and papers of the University Press, the presses in the basement and the papers above the great ceiling.
After the great fire of London in 1666, Wren, who had already been involved with plans for restoring St. Paul’s, rapidly produced plans for rebuilding the City to create a fine and modern cityscape which would reflect the glory of the restored monarchy, and this was a watershed in his career. He would become an architect and town planner on a grand scale, and his scientific work would take second place. Sometimes, with buildings like the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, or the Monument (to the Great Fire), his talents in architecture and science met and intertwined – the Monument is both an architectural monument and a huge scientific instrument to be used for experiments where a long drop was needed.
On being appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1669, Wren left Oxford to live in Whitehall, and being no longer bound by the celibacy rules of Oxford colleges, was free to marry, which he did in 1672. His wife, Faith Coghill, was from Bletchingdon; he had known her when he lived there with his sister. They had two sons, but the elder died when only 18 months old, and then Faith herself died of smallpox. He remarried but his second wife died in 1680, leaving him with three small children, one of whom was mentally handicapped.
Wren designed many churches in the City as well as the Royal Military Hospital at Chelsea and the Greenwich Royal Hospital for retired and disabled seamen, but his greatest work remains St. Paul’s Cathedral, which took almost forty years to complete, and where he was buried with great honour and pomp in 1723. His epitaph there reads “Si Monumentum Requiris, Circumspice.” - “If you would see his monument, look around”.
last updated: 15/01/2009 at 14:01
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