Saturday, September 5, 2015

On a Grander Scale by Lisa Jardine

Christopher Wren (1632-1723) is famous as an architect. In particular, he is known for the mark he made on the architectural landscape of London after the Great Fire of 1666. St. Paul’s cathedral, where he is buried, may be the crowning example of his work, but he designed and built many churches and public buildings in what may have been an early model for a modern architectural and construction firm.

As any biographer of Wren must, Lisa Jardine covers his career as an architect in On a Grander Scale. She also emphasizes other aspects of his life, specifically the effect political upheaval may have had on his personal outlook and career, and his involvement in scientific pursuits leading to the establishment of the Royal Society.

Wren has a privileged lifestyle as a child. His father (also Christopher) and uncle had posts as Anglican clergy that brought the close to Charles I. Wren spent some important years of his childhood in a house in the walls of Whitehall. His family remained royalists during the Commonwealth and Protectorate periods, leaving them little access to the favored clerical and political positions they had enjoyed. The young Wren effectively operated as a secretary and assistant to academically minded, ousted royalists who turned to science and invention to establish their fortunes. His mathematical sharpness, mechanical handiness, and facility for drawing gained him favor in this group of Renaissance physicians, physicists, chemists and astronomers. While still a young man, he joined them as a peer and gained an appointment as an astronomy professor.

Wren remained active in these scientific circles, even when he was much in demand as an architect and royal construction manager (Surveyor-General of the King’s Works). With his good friend Robert Hooke (curator of experiments for the Royal Society as well as a designer in Wren’s office), he looked for opportunities to incorporate scientific study into buildings. The work of the precursor of the Royal Society was very collaborative, and Jardine shows how Wren took that into his later scientific and architectural practices. His willingness to collaborate with people he trusted was probably a contributing factor to his success as an administrator of so many building, scientific, business, public and political projects.

When the monarchy was restored, Charles II attempted to reward those who had been loyal to his father, or their sons. Wren never became greatly wealthy or powerful through preferment, but he did rise to some prominence and had a successful career in public service. Charles I made him Surveyor-General, and he was reappointed by James II, co-monarchs William and Mary, Queen Anne, and George I. He was charming, astute, cautious and conscientious, which served him well on his long career. He was perhaps too cautious (or upright), because he never gained the wealth many of his mentors and peers achieved.

Jardine shows how Wren was among a group of men who pinned their hopes on a restored monarchy that was never as glorious as they hoped it would be. Even so, Wren was resourceful, as were his family and sponsors, and he rose to a career that his talent for science and hard work made possible. She sets him in the context of his time and particularly of his relationships. These relationships were with other men whose fathers fell from favor with the monarchy, mentors and peers in the scientific community (especially his close friend Hooke), and trusted assistants in his architectural practice. Wren is regarded as genius, and Jardine would agree, but he is also very much a part of a community of similar people who, to varying degrees, shared his fate and aided his success.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

Jardine, Lisa. On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life of Christopher Wren. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.