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Sir Christopher Wren
1632 - 1723

The English architect Sir Christopher Wren interpreted the baroque style in England and dominated English architecture for 50 years. His most important work is St. Paul's Cathedral, London.


Christopher Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on Oct. 20, 1632, and educated at Oxford. Apparently destined for a career as a scientific scholar, he became professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London when he was 24. In 1661 he was appointed Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford.

Wren did not give his attention to architecture until he was 30. No information is available to explain the development of his interest in architecture, but his training in science and mathematics and his ability in solving practical scientific problems provided him with the technical training necessary for a man who was to undertake complex architectural projects. His temperament and education, and the society in which he moved, would naturally have inclined him to wide interests.

Early Career

Wren's first venture into architecture came in 1662, when he designed the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, a building intended for university ceremonies. Based upon the concept of a Roman theatre, his ingenious interior design left the space free of supports or columns, but for the exterior he had recourse to unimaginative copying from old architectural pattern books.

Wren made only one journey out of England, a visit of several months to France in 1665 to study French Renaissance and baroque architecture. The French journey had significant influence on his work and provided him with a rich source of inspiration.

After the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed much of London, King Charles appointed Wren a member of the commission created to supervise the reconstruction of the city. He had already drawn up a visionary plan for a new London. His design was typical of 17th-century city planning and called for a combination of radiating and grid-plan streets accented by squares and vistas, but his plan was not accepted.

Wren was given the responsibility for replacing the 87 parish churches demolished by the Great Fire. Between 1670 and 1686 he designed 51 new churches; they constitute a major part of the vast amount of work done by him and are known as the City Churches. They are uneven in quality both in design and execution, and their varied plans and famous steeples reveal Wren's empirical eclecticism and his ingenuity. The churches are essentially classical in design or baroque variations on classical themes as adapted to English taste and the requirements of Anglican worship. His work on the City Churches firmly established his position as England's leading architect; he was appointed surveyor general in 1669, a post which he held until 1718, and was knighted in 1673.

While Wren was working on the City Churches, he undertook many other projects. One of the most important was Trinity College Library at Cambridge (1676-1684), an elegantly severe building derived from the late Italian Renaissance classicism of Andrea Palladio as transmitted to England by Inigo Jones in the early 17th century. By 1670 Wren was also at work on designs for a new St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's, which took nearly 35 years to build, is Wren's masterpiece. The Great Fire had so damaged the old St. Paul's as to render it dangerous, and the authorities decided that a new cathedral was needed. In 1673 Wren presented an impressive design in the form of a large wooden model known as the Great Model. The Great Model, which still exists, shows a cathedral based on a Greek-cross plan and dominated by a massive central dome. The exterior of the building was to have curved walls and an entrance block faced with a portico of giant Corinthian columns. The design of the Great Model is Wren's expression of baroque vitality tempered by classicism and reveals the influence of French and Italian architecture as well as that of Inigo Jones.

The English were accustomed to cathedrals built on the medieval Latin-cross plan with a long nave; the Great Model design, which was much criticized, departed from this tradition and seemed to the Protestant English to be too Continental and too Catholic. In the face of such opposition, Wren prepared a new design based on the Latin cross with a dome over the crossing and a classical portico entrance. This compromise, known as the Warrant Design, was accepted in 1675, but as the building progressed Wren made many changes which reflected his increasing knowledge of French and Italian baroque architecture gained from books and engravings. The Cathedral as finished in the early 18th century is very different from the Warrant Design; the building, a synthesis of many stylistic influences, is also Wren's uniquely organic creation. With its splendid dome, impressive scale, and dramatic grandeur, St. Paul's is fundamentally a baroque building, but it is English Protestant baroque in its restraint and disciplined gravity.

Later Work

After 1675 English architecture began to turn away from the sober Palladianism of Wren's Trinity College Library and to manifest influences from Continental baroque architecture. These trends are evident in St. Paul's and in his later works. English taste rejected the emotional drama and fluid design of Italian and German baroque and was closer to the classical baroque of France. Nevertheless, during the last quarter of the century English architects began to conceive of buildings in baroque terms, that is, as sculptural masses on a large scale, and to introduce elements of richness, grandeur, and royal splendour which reflected the temper of the age. Important example of Wren's design in the idiom of the English baroque are the Royal Hospital at Chelsea (1682-1689), the work done at Hampton Court Palace (1689-1696) for King William III and Queen Mary, and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich (1696-1705).

Wren died in London on Feb. 25, 1723, and was buried in St. Paul's. His tomb bears a simple inscription: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look about you."


One of the greatest English architects. His father was the High Church Rector of Knoyle, Wilts., and he was well connected, but he was also exposed to a spirit of enquiry, and became a pioneer of experimental learning. While at Oxford, he assisted Dr Charles Scarburgh (1616–94), the physician, mathematician, and anatomist, and himself developed an interest in anatomy and astronomy. He invented a model (the Panorganum Astronomicum) to demonstrate various periodical positions of the earth, sun, and moon, and became a skilled maker of models and diagrams. Made a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1653, in 1657 he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London. In 1661 he returned to Oxford as Savilian Professor of Astronomy, and, although only 28, was highly regarded by his peers. By that time he was becoming interested in architectural matters, and in 1663 his advice was sought by the Commission appointed to repair St Paul's Cathedral in London. In the same year he designed the new Chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge, a pleasant, if unstartling Classical building. This was followed by the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (1664–9), based on Antique exemplars noted in Italian architectural publications. To roof the considerable span, Wren evolved a timber truss which gained him approbation as an architect, although the Baroque fašade opposite the medieval Divinity Schools is some-what hesitant, and clumsy in the sum of its parts. In 1665 he made an important visit to Paris to see ‘esteem'd Fabricks’, which influenced his future work.

After the Great Fire of London (1666) he prepared a plan for rebuilding the City that was not adopted, but he was appointed (with Pratt and May) as one of the Commissioners to survey and determine how best to proceed with the work. He was also appointed (with Hooke and Woodroffe) to rebuild the City churches, and for this task Wren had overall control, although claims that he personally designed each building are exaggerated, and in nearly all cases the furnishings and architectural details were designed by craftsmen, Wren and his colleagues acting in supervisory roles. Designs for the 50 or so City churches either originated in or were vetted by his office, and in most cases accorded with Wren's idea of how ecclesiastical designs should be adapted for Protestant worship. The inventive towers, however, including that of St Dunstan-in-the-East (1697–9—Gothic), all seem to have originated in, or were modified by, Wren's office. Plans were also varied and interesting, notably the domed St Stephen, Walbrook (1672–9), and St Mary Abchurch (1681–6), a single-volume domed space. The galleried auditory church was ideally suited to Protestant worship, and the type was perfected at St Peter's, Cornhill (1675–81), St Clement Danes (from 1680), and St James, Piccadilly (1676–84). Wren's greatest achievement was the new St Paul's Cathedral (begun 1675), although he himself wanted a centrally planned church on the lines of the ‘great model’ of 1673. As built, St Paul's was essentially a medieval plan, adapted with a drum and dome over the crossing, and with western towers owing much to Roman Baroque prototypes. The western fašade, with its coupled columns, echoes the east front of the Louvre, Paris, and the great drum and dome were a triumphant affirmation of Wren's intellect, invention, and ability. The design of the Cathedral's exterior includes features such as aedicules with windows below in the pedestals, and a screening upper storey on the sides that serves to hide the nave buttresses, both of which have been the subject of adverse criticism for their alleged ‘falseness’.

In 1668/9 Wren became Surveyor-General of the King's Works, succeeded May as Comptroller at Windsor in 1684, was appointed Surveyor at Greenwich Palace in 1696, and was Architect in charge of the building of the Military Hospital at Chelsea. The last, with its bold and severe Roman Doric Order (1682–9), was suggested by the Invalides in Paris, and also by Webb's plan for the Palace at Greenwich. When Wren prepared designs for the completion of Greenwich Palace as a Naval Hospital, the need to retain Inigo Jones's Queen's House led to the solution of building two tall cupolas on either side of the central axis (from 1696) and the making of the grandest Baroque composition in England, including the handsome Hall (1698), decorated by Sir James Thornhill (1675–1734), 1708–27. He prepared major schemes for the Palaces of Whitehall (destroyed 1698), Winchester (destroyed 1894), and Hampton Court (south and east ranges (1689–94)) and interior of the King's apartments (completed by Talman (1699)).

Other works include the Garden Quadrangle, Trinity College, Oxford (1668–1728—much altered), the Gothic Tom Tower, Christ Church, Oxford (1681–2), and the very grand Library at Trinity College, Cambridge (1676–84), one of the noblest buildings of its time. He designed Marlborough House, St James's, London (1709–11—later altered on numerous occasions), in which work he was assisted by his son, Christopher (1675–1747), who collected the papers that led to Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens, published by Christopher jun.'s son, Stephen, in 1750. Sir Christopher Wren's work was influenced by French architecture, notably that of Mansart and Le Vau, and by Netherlands Classicism and Roman Baroque. He in turn influenced Vanbrugh, Christopher Kempster (1627–1715—the master-mason who built the City Churches of St Stephen, Walbrook, St James, Garlickhythe (1764–87), and St Mary Abchurch, and who was responsible for the Town Hall, Abingdon, Berks. (1678–80)), and Hawksmoor, who was his assistant and pupil.










This web page was last updated on: 18 December, 2008