Soaring spires of a stargazer

On a Grander Scale
October 18, 2002

Timothy Mowl looks at a provocative work about a great architect.

Perhaps the time has come for a Christopher Wren biography written by someone not desperately interested in architecture. Parallels suggest themselves: a study of Shakespeare by an author whose theatre-going is limited, or of William Wordsworth by a writer who suffers from agoraphobia in mountain areas. After all, Wren himself, in a frustrated moment, referred to his building activities as "rubbish" and claimed that his "trade" was astronomy.

That detachment is not the only telling point in Lisa Jardine's ingeniously crafted study. It is not a book in the usual sense of the term, more a 600-page compendium, a scholarly yet shamelessly populist text, so provocative that readers will often find themselves referring to her 75 pages of dense notes, most of which are pure gold.

The book is generously illustrated and there are intriguing small sub-sections every six or seven pages with titles such as "The boy from the Isle Of Wight joins the club", "Mathematical magic in the warden's garden" or "Friends in high financial places", with further reminders of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time in a dramatic handling of Wren's timescale. Immediately after Charles II has been crowned in 1661, Wren is promising, in 1671, to employ Grinling Gibbons; then, after visiting Charles's death bed of 1685, Jardine vaults back to Stephen Fox as a pageboy in 1646 Paris. It works, but it is a demanding ride. Quotation is the engine of the book. The writer never makes a point herself if she can press it home more authoritatively in the words of a Wren contemporary.

If Charles is being pompous and pedantic over Garter ceremonial, we get a whole pompous and pedantic page of his own writing. Rather than generalise about routes to royal favour, Jardine slips in two pages of ingratiation from Elias Ashmole's diary (the antiquary whose collection is housed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). The resultant text draws the reader through a personal seminar on the fraught times and intellectual quests of the administrative establishment of the later Stuarts. One refreshing result of this method is that the reader is given evidence on which to question the author's own conclusions. For instance, rather than become entangled in arcane architectural historians' arguments as to who - Wren, Robert Hooke or Edward Woodroffe - designed any one of the 51 city churches, Jardine shrewdly limits herself to detailed accounts of the three best: St Mary-le-Bow, St Stephen Walbrook and St Lawrence Jewry. She is anxious to give Wren all the credit for the last because of the dexterity with which its asymmetries are concealed through tricks of perspective. A valuable Wren quotation on perspective follows. But if Jardine's text is judged against her illustrations, since Wren is securely recorded as the designer of the gloriously inventive steeple of St Mary, then the clumsy stump of St Lawrence must have been left for Hooke to complete.

Easily the most ingenious stroke in the book is delivered in the preface. Suspecting that idle reviewers might not get beyond the first 50 pages, Jardine fills the first eight with two illustrations and an account of her most exciting discovery: a secret underground laboratory under the Monument in Fish Street, raised in 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire of London, which had given Wren his chance of immortality in 1666. Included in this cellar of science is a vertical zenith telescope reaching up through the 200ft column to the flaming urn on its summit, "a unique, hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument", a 17th-century astronomical prodigy achieved by Wren and surviving unnoticed in our midst.

Jardine's excitement is infectious, so one reads eagerly, only to find, around page 318, that it was Hooke's scheme, not Wren's. Hooke built it and, as a device to discover the parallax of earth, it was a complete failure, no vertical shaft being stable enough to achieve the required accuracy. While it is all very interesting, Jardine's "discovery" of it was made when she was invited to inspect it by the attendant on duty, who rolled back the ticket office carpet, lifted the trapdoor and led the way down into the domed chamber.

Hooke is projected as the key to Wren's achievement. They worked together on blood transfusion, the construction of a weather gauge, the observation of comets and the cubico paraboloid conoid needed to sustain a heavy cupola high above London. When supporting arches crumbled, as they did twice, under the weight of the cathedral's dome, Wren and Hooke climbed the scaffolding together, discussed the problem in their favourite coffee house and reached structural solutions on the immense learning curve of that 45-year building period, 1667-1711. Jardine speaks of Hooke's "passion" for Wren but never the reverse. Hooke was a fellow high churchman, an argumentative bachelor, a dandy and socialite in his younger days, a practical inventor and a daring mathematician. Wren was the artist, the concept man, easy in his relationships, the team-worker who adroitly took the credit for a team's achievements without causing resentments, one of life's enablers.

This theme of Wren and Hooke comes across convincingly, though at the price of devoting a mere four pages to Wren's two wives and four children. Jardine consigns a charmingly metaphysical love letter that Wren wrote, surely to one of his wives, to the footnotes, insisting that it must have been written to his sister Susan because neither of his wives, one a knight's and the other a baron's daughter, is likely to have owned the pocket watch around which the letter is constructed. She is equally ruthless in the creation of the book's second theme: that both Wren and Hooke were motivated throughout their careers by the desire to realise the ambitions of Charles I, the royal martyr. On no evidence, except the expedient word of the fantasist John Webb, she believes that the king had intended to build a vast palace at Whitehall and that Wren had shared that vision; that the king had been Wren's "spiritual inspiration on earth".

Closer consideration of Wren's architectural aspirations would indicate that Webb's grandiose designs for Whitehall would have disgusted him, and that Wren's best work in the palace line was done for the House of Orange, not Stuart, at Hampton Court, Greenwich and Kensington. Wren's most original creations, the spires of his City churches, are livelier versions of four steeples in Amsterdam. Jardine's most valuable, plausible, though never completely proven, proposal is that in 1649 Wren travelled through Holland with his patron John Wilkins, the new warden of Wadham College, to pay court to that unlikely supporter of parliamentarians, the martyred king's nephew, Charles Louis, Elector Palatine. If that proof could be clinched, and Amsterdam included on the itinerary, it would be more influential and explanatory than any number of vertical telescopes and cellar laboratories. But Wren, ever intent on keeping his head down in matters political, seems to have covered his traces well on that disloyal expedition.

Timothy Mowl is lecturer in the history of art, University of Bristol.

On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Sir Christopher Wren

Author - Lisa Jardine
ISBN - 0 00 710775 7
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 600

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