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The great Wrenaissance. By Harry Mount

Blog | By Harry Mount | Jun 21, 2023

British baroque: Wren’s St Mary Abchurch

Not long before his death 300 years ago, Sir Christopher Wren had a terrible shock.

Looking at the final plans for St Paul’s Cathedral, he saw his dream vision for the cathedral had been brutally altered.

Wren wanted to punctuate the London skyline with statues dotted along the parapet of St Paul’s. Instead, the Church Commissioners overruled him and put in a stone balustrade – pointless, because no visitors would ever go up there and need to be protected from a fall. You can just make out the balustrade in the picture of St Paul’s on the opposite page.

As Wren later mournfully said of the balustrade, some people, ‘like ladies, think nothing well without an edging’.

Britain’s greatest architect had gone out of fashion by the time he died, aged 90, on 8th March 1723. Wren’s baroque had been eclipsed by Palladianism – thanks to George I’s accession in 1714, the publication of Vitruvius Britannicus, the Palladian Bible, by Colen Campbell, in 1715, and Giacomo Leoni’s first English translation – The Four Books of Architecture – of Andrea Palladio, also in 1715.

Wren had been Surveyor of the King’s Works for almost half a century, since 1669. But in 1718 he was brutally replaced by a Palladian architect, William Benson, 50 years Wren’s junior.

Benson built handsome Wilbury House, Wiltshire, for himself, and the Kensington Palace state rooms. But otherwise he was a disaster, lasting only 15 months in the job, sacking capable employees and falsely claiming the House of Lords was about to collapse.

So Wren’s epitaph on his tombstone in St Paul’s – ‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice’ (‘If you seek his monument, look around’) – is only partly true. The cathedral isn’t quite as Wren envisaged it.

Not only was that horrible ‘edging’ added. Wren couldn’t have wrought-iron railings outside the cathedral. The Commissioners insisted on cast iron.

The Commissioners even quibbled over his fee. They persuaded Parliament to delay half Wren’s payment until the building was complete. Only after much argument did he finally get his money.

Still Wren didn’t give in to bitterness. He retired in 1718, aged 86, to Hampton Court. According to his son, he spent his last years in ‘Contemplation and studies, and principally in the Consolation of the holy Scriptures; cheerful in Solitude and as well pleased to die in the Shade as in the Light’.

Ninety was then a great age for anyone to die. Wren was the first architect to build a cathedral within his own lifetime. Previous cathedrals had taken centuries.

Still, for all the nastiness of his treatment at the end of his career, Wren had been in style for an astonishingly long time.

It helped that he’d really created that style – Anglo-French-Italian baroque – from the 1660s onwards.

When it comes to classical architecture, be wary of praising any British architect ahead of, say, Michelangelo, Bernini or Borromini. As John Betjeman put it, ‘Be careful before you call Weymouth the Naples of Dorset. How many Italians call Naples the Weymouth of Campania?’

But Wren – and Inigo Jones – do rank with the best Italian architects. Jones, 50 years Wren’s senior, was the first British architect to absorb the rules of classical architecture and invent a correct British form of classicism. He toured Italy with the Earl of Arundel in 1613.

His sketchbook survives, as does his copy of Palladio’s I Quattro libri dell’architettura (1570). The copy, at Worcester College, Oxford, is covered with Jones’s notes and measurements of ancient and Renaissance buildings.

Before Jones and Wren, British architecture had been lagging half a century behind the Continent.

Wren closed the gap. He met the sublime sculptor and baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Paris. Wren said, ‘Bernini’s design for the Louvre I would have given my skin for.’

As well as creating an understated British baroque, Wren also produced his own type of Gothic. When Wren was born, in 1632, Inigo Jones’s classical buildings were all the rage. But classicism was a new phenomenon.

The young Christopher Wren was surrounded by Gothic buildings as an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford, and a graduate at All Souls’ College, Oxford, still the ultimate brainbox college today.

Wren returned to Oxford to build the Sheldonian Theatre – a hybrid of ancient Roman classical theatre with an avant-garde flat roof, showing his engineering skill. And he also built the majestic gatehouse at Christ Church, Tom Tower, a mixture of fashionable classicism and the Gothic style in which the college had been built over a century earlier.

Wren was blessed in his timing. He launched his career just after the Civil War, when few important building projects could be designed. And the tragedy of the Great Fire of London gave him the best rebuilding commission any British architect has ever had: for St Paul’s and 51 City Churches.

Cometh the hour, cometh Sir Christopher Wren.

See www.theoldie.co.uk for Harry Mount’s Oldie Walking Tour of Wren’s London.