Wren 300

In CA 373, we lamented the lack of a society ready to take on the task of managing the tercentenary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren. Fortunately, the Georgian Group has put on the mantle of chief co-ordinator of this year’s events. While Wren’s greatest works were designed in the 17th century, he lived long enough (1632-1723) to see the coronation of the first of the Georges (1 August 1714), so the Georgian Group is quite within its rights.

Wren’s genius is evident at St Stephen Walbrook (completed 1672), where he succeeded in constructing a light-filled church on a constrained site, hemmed in by houses and a market, by building a dome with a lantern to let light in from above; daringly the dome is supported on slender Corinthian columns where another architect would have used solid piers. Image: C Catling

Wren’s legacy – as his monument in St Paul’s Cathedral reminds us – remains for all to see on the London skyline: of the 52 medieval churches he rebuilt in the City after the Great Fire, 24 buildings and six towers survived the Blitz. The City would have borne an even stronger Wren imprint, though, if he had been allowed to rebuild it along rational lines, with a grid system, radiating avenues, and just 19 churches. The landowners of London refused to accept such a massive intervention – they just wanted the swiftest possible return to business as usual, even if this meant reverting to dark narrow alleys lined by cramped tenements.

The sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow (completed 1680) defines a Cockney: above the church’s square belfry with its Ionic pilasters, Wren added a rotunda defined by Corinthian columns, then a cross with 12 Composite colonettes, and finally the slender spire. Image: C Catling

This was not the only disappointment in his life: Wren burst into tears when his Great Model for St Paul’s (still on display in the cathedral) was rejected as being ‘too Catholic’ for a Protestant nation. Baroque it might be in style, but St Paul’s ended up with a Gothic plan form, with a long nave and choir.

The south transept of St Paul’s Cathedral, with its carving of a phoenix rising from the flames symbolising the cathedral’s rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1666. Image: C Catling

For the 300th anniversary, the Georgian Group and its many partners will offer guided tours of his City churches, the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, and the Royal Hospital Chelsea. An exhibition in the north aisle of the crypt of St Paul’s will show Wren-related drawings and objects from the cathedral archives. There will also be concerts in his churches, talks at Gresham College (where Wren once delivered weekly astronomy lectures), a conference at Downing College, Cambridge, and a whole range of hands-on events, from wood- and stone-carving and letter-cutting workshops to training in the use of digital technology for recording historic buildings.

Mathematician, scientist, astronomer, as well as architect, Wren’s legacy lies not just in the buildings he designed but also in the example he set of what a combined education in science and the humanities can offer.

Further information: www.wren300.org

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