Sir Christopher Wren by Paul Rabbitts
Those who know Christopher Wren usually think of him solely as a remarkable architect whose glorious designs still shine some 350 years later. But, as this very brief biography reveals, Wren was so much more: he was a distinguished scientist before he began designing buildings well into his 30s. “This book’s purpose,” explains Paul Rabbitts, “is therefore not a detailed account of his life but an introduction to Sir Christopher Wren, the astronomer, scientist, mathematician, architect and, above all, a versatile and English gentleman.”
It is surprising, however, that only one third of the entire pamphlet centers on the stated purpose, while the remainder features beautiful thumbnail pictures and brief descriptions of many of his architectural wonders. Although limited in scope, it provides a brief, easily-digested introduction to a facet of Wren’s life that has seldom been recognized by the public. The format divides the text and pictures into an examination of religious, royal, and secular edifices.
Born into a family of churchmen, Wren was an anatomist by age 16 working as an assistant to physician Charles Scarburgh. At the same age he translated William Oughtred’s Clavis Mathematicae into Latin. Oughtred, who introduced the symbols “x” and “::” and developed the first slide rule, was highly complementary of Wren’s translation.
Wren was appointed professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London at age 25. While there, he was instrumental in founding the Royal Society, “a Colledge for the promotion of Physico-Mathematicall Experimental Learning.” Within a year, he took a position at Oxford. His growing reputation, closeness to King Charles, and familial connections (his cousin was secretary to the Lord Chancellor) earned him a commission to survey the “harbor and fortifications” of Tangier. He turned it down but quickly received another commission closer to home.
Gilbert Sheldon appointed him to design what became known as the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford. His design included a novel means of constructing a roof over a large span. He also designed a “simple classical chapel” at Cambridge and, by 1665, completed a proposal to repair the Gothic Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Do not forget that Wren was not an “architect” and had not designed a building, but he was evolving into an architect with his feet still planted firmly in philosophy and astronomy. Isaac Newton later deemed him one of “the greatest geometers of our time.” Then fate intervened.
By September 5, 1666 the Great Fire had consumed most of London. By September 11 Wren submitted a comprehensive plan to rebuild. And, the rest, as the saying goes, is history. Fifty-one churches were rebuilt. He also designed the Royal Hospital at Chelsea and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich as he, in truth, recreated the “face” of London and its surroundings. Many of his buildings remain popular tourist destinations to this day.
One cannot be certain of the target audience for this volume. Its size (8” x 6” and only 96 pages) suggests it would most likely be found in the children’s section of your local independent bookstore. The glossy, high quality pages, replete with full-color photographs, suggest placement in the arts section. However, the combination of size, quality printing, and textual information suggest a more likely repository: the gift shop one finds at the end of a tour of a building designed by Wren. And, these would be specifically in Great Britain and not in other buildings whose designs were only inspired by the great architect. Chief among these, for example, would be buildings capped by domes such as those at the United States Capitol or St. Isaac’s in Saint Petersburg. Regardless of where one might find this, the reader will be rewarded with a cornucopia of information about the life of Sir Christopher Wren.