Christopher Wren - architect and astronomer

Sir Christopher WrenSir Christopher Wren, by Kneller, Godfrey, Sir [artist]; Smith, John [engraver], 1713 Christopher Wren is best known as the architect of St. Paul's Cathedral and other London churches, but his first love was science and mathematics. During the first part of his career he worked as an astronomer. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich, which he designed, combines both aspects of this famous man's work – astronomy and architecture.

Where was Wren born and educated?

Wren was born in 1632 in the village of East Knoyle in Wiltshire, where his father was Rector. Soon afterwards his father moved to Windsor, and young Christopher was sent to Westminster School in London. He showed an early talent for mathematics and went on to study at Oxford University.

What were Wren's early interests?

Wren always enjoyed inventing and making things. As a young man he constructed a pneumatic machine and a device for writing in the dark. He also made models of the Moon and the solar system.

In 1657, when Wren was only twenty-five, he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College, London. A group of scientists met there regularly to discuss their ideas. This group formed the core of what would later become the Royal Society. After several more years spent on scientific research, Wren became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford in 1661.

What happened to Wren's family during the Civil War?

As staunch Royalists, Wren's family suffered during the Civil War, which began when Wren himself was only ten. His uncle Matthew, the Bishop of Ely, was imprisoned in the Tower of London for eighteen years. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 brought new opportunities to those families loyal to the crown, and Wren was in a good position to benefit from this.

How did Wren's interest in architecture begin?

Wren's interest in architecture developed from his study of physics and engineering. At a time when architecture was considered to be a part-time interest for wealthy and educated gentlemen, Wren was one of the few architects to have a sound knowledge of the structure of buildings.

What was the Royal Society?

The 17th century was a time when the sciences flourished and great strides forward were made in medicine and in physics. In 1628, for instance, William Harvey wrote a treatise on the circulation of the blood. It was also the age of Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle. As King Charles II was interested in all scientific matters, the society that Wren and his friends formed at Gresham College soon came to his notice. He granted it a Royal Charter in 1661.

What was Wren's first building?

The first building that Wren designed was a chapel for Pembroke College, Cambridge. It was commissioned in 1665 by his uncle, the Bishop of Ely. Around the same time he worked on a design for the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford. This building was Wren's first opportunity to design a dome. To help him with this, he studied drawings of Michelangelo's great dome at St. Peter's in Rome. He also visited Paris in 1665, and was impressed by the new baroque dome of Lemercier's church of the Sorbonne and Mansart's church of Les Invalides.

What did Wren design in London?

A dramatic opportunity for Wren to design many buildings for London came when a fire broke out in Pudding Lane in the heart of the old city in September 1666. Many of the houses were made of timber and built very close together, so the fire spread rapidly. By the time the fire was put out, around 13,000 houses and seventy parish churches were destroyed.

What happened after the Great Fire?

Christopher Wren, with several others, including Robert Hooke and the diarist John Evelyn, took on the task of surveying the extent of the damage of the Great Fire. Wren produced a plan for the city which would create new open spaces along the main thoroughfares. Although this plan could not be carried out completely, the King admired the design. The Rebuilding Act of 1667 took care of practical improvements such as the construction of wide streets, enabling Wren to concentrate on designing new churches to replace those that had been burnt down. This work occupied him for the next thirty years.

Was St. Paul's Cathedral burned down in the Fire?

Being quite close to the centre of the fire, St. Paul's was extensively damaged. John Evelyn, after looking at the wreckage, wrote:

...I was infinitely concerned to find that goodly church, St. Paul's, a sad ruin, and that beautiful portico - for structure comparable to any in Europe, and not long before repaired by the late king - now rent in pieces...

How did Wren create his design for St. Paul's Cathedral?

Wren's initial design, called the 'First Model', was not approved by the City Council. They thought it wasn't grand enough. He followed with his 'Great Model' design of 1674, for which he made a large model in wood, six metres long. This was also rejected, this time by the clergy who did not like its Greek key plan. Wren's third design, called the 'Warrant Design', was for a Latin Cross plan with a large dome. This was approved by Royal Warrant in 1675. Even this design was modified, and building wasn't completed until thirty-five years later. The government found money for the rebuilding work from a tax on sea-coal. The cathedral opened in 1697, though the dome was not completed until 1710.

Who worked for Wren on these projects?

Wren wanted the best craftsmanship available. On the various building works he fostered a team of craftsmen, many of whom worked for him for the rest of their lives. Among them was the Master Plasterer, John Groves, who had previously worked on the ceilings of the Queen's House, Greenwich in 1660-61. The famous wood carver, Grinling Gibbons was born in Rotterdam, but was discovered working in a hut in Deptford by Wren's friend John Evelyn. Gibbons worked on various projects with Wren. As well as St. Pauls Cathedral, these included an extension of Hampton Court Palace for King William and Queen Mary. Gibbons remained in London until his death in 1721.

When was the Royal Observatory built?

In 1675, Wren received a commission from Charles II which must have been of special interest to him. The idea was to create a Royal Observatory for the use of John Flamsteed, who that year had been appointed as the first Astronomer Royal. The King hoped that a proper study of the moon and the stars would help to perfect navigation at sea. Using telescopes and other instruments in the new Observatory, the astronomers would record the moon's position relative to certain stars at set times. This would enable navigators to fix their position at sea more accurately. The night sky would, in effect, become the sailor's clock. It was hoped in this way to avoid the growing loss of life and ship's cargoes in shipwrecks.

How was the Observatory built?

The King was very short of funds, so to save money, second-hand building materials were used to build the Observatory. Brick and stone were brought along the River Thames from an old Tudor fort at Tilbury that was being repaired. Other money came from the sale of old gunpowder. In spite of these limitations, Wren managed to create the beautiful Octagon Room. Underneath the Octagon Room, the Observatory included the living quarters for the Royal Astronomer.

Why did Wren design a hospital for sailors at Greenwich?

In 1682, Wren designed a Royal Hospital for soldiers at Chelsea. The idea of building a similar hospital at Greenwich for injured and disabled seamen, may have been that of King James II. As Admiral of the Fleet, he had seen much action at sea. However, nothing was done in his short reign, and it was left to Queen Mary to put the plan into action. Wren's original scheme was to build a three-sided arrangement of buildings incorporating a block by James Webb which had been intended as a new palace for King Charles II until the project ran out of funds. Queen Mary insisted that the view of the Queen's House from the river should be kept, so Wren adapted his plan. The Hospital was finished in 1702, in the reign of Queen Anne.

When did Wren die?

In 1723, at the great age of ninety-one. His achievements during this long life are considerable. He was one of the first professional architects in this country to have a sound knowledge of engineering. He introduced the Baroque style to Britain, though he gave it a more restrained flavour than on the continent. His own view was that St. Paul's was his masterpiece and his gravestone inside the cathedral has a Latin inscription which translated, reads:

If you seek my monument look around you.