In the shadow of the cathedral

March 8, 2002

Michael Cooper fails to find the man behind the architectural icon.

Most of the dozen or so biographies of Wren published since 1923, the bicentenary of his death, concentrate on his architecture. This book is announced as "the first complete picture". Adrian Tinniswood tells us he was "dimly aware" Wren had been a professor of astronomy, but "it seemed of little consequence". A quarter of the way through the book after writing about Wren's science, he realises "what we don't know (about Wren) would fill another book". It is not often that a biographer's awakening to the details of his subject's life is so frankly and engagingly revealed.

Anyone setting out to write a biography of Wren that adds significantly to what is already known from previous ones should first identify and then overcome the difficulties that have made these earlier biographies incomplete. In the 17th century, fellows of the Royal Society studied, wrote about and practised in many areas now regarded as specialised academic disciplines. It is not easy for an author today to discuss Wren's science and architecture with the balance and insight necessary to convey a satisfactorily full account of his long, varied and active life. Another difficulty is the contrast between the first-hand and monumental evidence of Wren's architecture and the scarcity of primary documentary evidence of his other activities. In science, his influence was mainly through the originality and diversity of his ideas for instruments and lines of enquiry that were taken up and worked on by others. He kept no diary, but his son and heir, Christopher, compiled a Wren family history, Parentalia , which was later edited and published by Wren's grandson in 1750. It is a collection of copies of original documents and biographical details which, written by a son whose interests were familial rather than scholarly, need judicious interpretation.

The problem of Wren's personality is illustrated by two contrasting portraits. The earlier is Edward Pierce's bust in the Ashmolean Museum. It shows Wren in his early 40s with naturally curling hair falling to his shoulders and the beginnings of a smile as he glances at something to the viewer's right that has caught his attention. The whole face is animated by intelligence, although the image printed in the book does not show this very well. The contrasting portrait, chosen for the book's cover, is Sir Godfrey Kneller's 1711 painting in the National Portrait Gallery. Wren is dressed in the brown velvet tunic Kneller used for his portrait of Sir Robert Walpole and (in different colours) for portraits of other members of the Kit-cat Club that now hang in an adjoining room at the gallery. From under a full wig, Wren looks directly down at the viewer through hooded eyes - calm, confident, superior. He sits at the corner of a table on which lie a representation of the executed plan of St Paul's Cathedral and a book with "UCLID" on the spine. A pair of dividers held languidly in his right hand completes the portrait's iconic trappings. Only two small details reveal the humanity of the sitter - his short upper legs and a slight tension in the muscle of his top lip that hints at a sneer rather than a smile.

The two portraits, spanning more than 40 years of his maturity, show the human and iconic aspects of Wren. The latter is still the dominant popular image - England's greatest architect, the rebuilder of London after 1666, thwarted in his great plan for a glorious new city by the jealousies and self-interest of lesser men, but chosen by the King himself as architect of the royal buildings. It is necessary to present the intellect and personality of the man behind the icon.

Tinniswood begins by dashing straight to physiology. We are presented with Wren carrying out a canine splenectomy by vivisection to the accompaniment of the animal's writhings and whinings. This vivid opening seems to be more a publishing gambit than an indication of authorial intent. The writing soon calms down.

For more than a hundred pages, Tinniswood concentrates on Wren's science and its social milieu. He is particularly good at the latter. The ecclesiastical and political loyalties and family connections of the men at Oxford and London who influenced Wren's thinking in the late 1640s and 1650s are written about in a congenial manner. He recounts much more of Wren's science than other general biographers have done, but misses many opportunities to interpret the evidence. For instance, the social contexts of informal meetings between Robert Hooke and Wren are explained, but there is no examination in depth of the innumerable topics they discussed or suggestions as to how these topics were related to contemporary ideas in science and architecture. Tinniswood says he wants his "heroes to be people, not ideas", but when the aim is to present a complete picture of someone who had exceptional ideas, the ideas are at least as important as the personality and social milieu of the subject.

Explanations of Wren's transition from astronomer to architect have ranged from worldly ambition to the sort of thing a genius could do at that time, but the activities have similar intellectual motives. In science the goal is to seek, usually by experiment, useful patterns or models out of the apparent confusion of natural phenomena. Architecture produces form and order out of raw and disordered materials. In each case the creation of order (mental or physical) out of existing confusion is a strong motive. It is generally understood that for architects geometry gives a sense of order and aesthetic appeal, but the same is true for scientists. The ellipses of Kepler's planetary orbits that emerged from Tycho Brahe's observations and the double helix that came out of X-ray photographs of the DNA molecule have a geometric beauty that was a factor in convincing others of the truth of the discoveries. Furthermore, in natural philosophy and architecture, design is a process by which order is achieved. The procedures and instruments used in an experiment are designed to give answers to particular questions, just as a building is designed to have specific aesthetic, structural and functional qualities.

Design and order are shown to have been important to Wren but they are presented independently and with little discussion of the way they might be connected in Wren's mind, except for a suggestion that they arose from his troubled childhood. In Parentalia , Christopher Wren Junior remarks that in old age Wren regretted having spent most of his life "in rubbish" and that he could have earned a fortune as a physician. Yet Wren knew that a career as physician held out no prospect of the order and beauty he found so attractive in natural philosophy. He also knew that he could not achieve wealth and social status through science; Hooke was arguably the first professional scientist, but he was regarded by others in the Royal Society as socially inferior and his fortune came through working as a surveyor. Only as an architect could Wren have achieved his financial, aesthetic and social ambitions.

Tinniswood recounts what little is known of Wren's domestic life: two brief marriages, both of which ended in death; the death of his first-born at 17 months; a mentally handicapped third son ("Poor Billy"); and the last 43 years of his life spent as a widower. Wren's only daughter kept house for him and her brother Billy until she died in 1702. Despite many biographical details of countless individuals with whom Wren dealt in his architectural work and the arguments, betrayals and triumphs they brought, Wren's character remains elusive. Perhaps he was remote and aloof, as Kneller portrayed him, yet his expression "Poor Billy", and the tenderness shown in a rare letter to his first wife hint at a very different personality. He comes fleetingly to life in this book only when he is described in company with Hooke, visiting London coffee houses, arguing and debating, telling tales of the world's wonders, and exchanging political, court and mercantile gossip. Perhaps Wren's warmth showed itself only in the company of the gregarious Hooke. The friendship between these two men, each short in stature, but otherwise apparently very different personalities, receives no more attention from Tinniswood than it has from other biographers, but its durability and oddness warrant further investigation.

More than half the book is about Wren as architect. From the time of the London Blitz the commonly held view, at least in England, that Wren had effortlessly rebuilt the whole of London after the Great Fire and received his due as a towering genius, have been gradually altered. Tinniswood has now summarised all the recent evidence to demonstrate clearly that Wren did not do the impossible, as Parentalia would have us believe. The difficulties and setbacks he had to overcome and the increasing criticism of him personally and of his English Baroque style towards the end of his life and afterwards are fully discussed and a more realistic view of his abilities and astonishing achievements emerges. But even in architectural matters Tinniswood is sometimes diffident about interpreting his material. He says he would give "a lot to hear (Wren's) on-site conversations with mason-contractors". So would many of the readers of this book. Wren's interest in management is noted, but he was also involved with the Royal Society's experiments on stone, wood and iron as building materials. It is disappointing that someone who has read widely and allowed himself to speculate rationally on what might have happened during a meeting between Wren and Bernini in Paris in 1665, has not written similarly on how Wren organised his office. Studies of Wren's carpentry by James Campbell and of his draughting by Anthony Geraghty have thrown further light on these matters, but were probably too late to be included here.

The book is engagingly written, reinforcing the early suspicion that its opening is meretricious. It is well produced, with comprehensive notes and bibliography. Entries to the index are by individuals' names, so topics are secondary but easy to locate if a good guess can be made of the individual associated with the topic. The book will interest the general reader who wants the details of Wren's life. It is a challenge to anyone intending to look more closely at the details to discover, if not a "complete picture", then one which shows even more of Wren than has been revealed here.

Michael Cooper is emeritus professor of engineering surveying, City University, London.

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