Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723)
From 1660 until the early 18th century one man, Sir Christopher Wren, dominated London’s architecture to an extent almost unthinkable today. In an age when there were no professional architects, rather a tradition of gentleman amateurs, his name is synonymous with English Renaissance architecture, and particularly the City of London’s churches. He was multi-talented: a professor of astronomy and brilliant geometrician, fascinated by the visual world, his highly inventive mind had a flair for problem-solving. He typified the great men of his age who believed there was “nothing that could not be done”, and perceived architecture as an intellectual challenge.
Before 1666, he was already putting his mind to various projects notably the problems of “Old St Paul’s”, and had visited Paris to study French Renaissance architecture. He could hardly have guessed how useful this experience would be within only a year. Immediately after the Great Fire of London in September 1666, Wren presented imaginative plans for a new urban design. Although these proved impractical, his creative flair earned him the royal favor, and in 1669 he was appointed “Surveyor of the King’s Works”, a position of great influence, though it didn’t confer on him an architectural monopoly.
Wren, although part of a six man Commission set up to oversee the rebuilding of the City, actually played a limited role in the overall scheme. This was because from 1670, with the revenue from the coal tax, he focused his energies on St Paul’s and the City churches, eighty seven of which had been burnt. Fifty one of these were to be rebuilt, all to Wren’s designs, the first new church building since the Reformation. Wren had the perfect opportunity to make his mark on the City.
St Paul’s cathedral is Sir. Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, the largest and most famous church in the London, situated majestically on Ludgate Hill, and still dominating the City’s skyline. Standing on the site of three Saxon Predecessors, the fourth, “Old St Paul’s ”, was a huge medieval Gothic cathedral. It had completely dominated the London skyline for roughly 600 years, and was obviously once an amazing sight at the heart of the medieval City. This had been the largest church in England, and one of the largest in Europe, with a very tall spire and steeple high above a massive central tower.
From the mid 16th century, after another fire, it had rapidly fallen into disrepair, neglected and misused. Several restorations had been proposed, each impractical for different reasons. Just prior to 1660, with the central tower unsound, and the tall spire long gone, serious questions were being asked regarding its future. Ideas had been put forward for converting “the Gothick Rudeness of ye old Design”. As with the City itself, the devastation wrought in 1666 was actually a blessing in disguise. The Cathedral was virtually beyond repair, and had to be rebuilt to a new design. But only after other priorities had been dealt with.
Demolition of Old St Paul’s was complete by 1672. Work proper began in 1675. The cathedral emerged in stages. The ground plan came first – a traditional Latin cross Gothic arrangement, as the clergy demanded. The internal dimensions are huge, 479 feet long and 227 feet wide, with an area of 87,400 square feet. The immediate impression is of a cavernous space. The long nave, 40 feet wide and 89 feet high, and aisles, were needed for State occasions. The choir was needed for daily services. The tri-forium gallery and clerestory were essentially Gothic. But Wren introduced a modification, the meeting of the nave, transepts and aisles was to be circular. For Wren from very early on had decided on a massive dome rather than the planned steeple.
The final stone was put in place in 1708, by Wren’s son. Throughout the thirty three years of construction here were constant difficulties. Parliament viewed the progress as so slow that they halved Wren’s £200 annual salary in 1697. He was only paid the arrears in 1711, when he was nearly 80 years old. Furthermore he faced constant criticism from some quarters, but he battled on, and fittingly was the first person to be buried in the crypt. He died aged 91, in 1723, and the epitaph on his tombstone in Painters’ Corner speaks volumes – “if you seek my memorial, look around you”.
Text from City of London Churches. London.
Photos taken by the blog’s author.