With Great Stomack

Simon Schaffer

  • His Invention so Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren by Adrian Tinniswood
    Cape, 463 pp, £25.00, July 2001, ISBN 0 224 04298 X

Christopher Wren, England’s best known architect and one of its greatest natural philosophers, experimented with everything: stone and wood, cones and domes, animals and men. He liked to depart from revered authorities. Under his hands plans for a church steeple or an academic hall would turn into a bold revision of Vitruvian schemes, the twitches of an anatomised dog into a startling challenge to Galenic orthodoxy, the motion of a planetary model into liberation from the ‘tyranny’ of ancient astronomy. The puzzle, now, is to understand this entanglement of tradition and experimentation, then to see how the mix was put to work. Late in life, Wren morosely described his ultimate profession of architecture as ‘rubbish’. He guessed he’d have been wealthier had he remained a doctor. Ever since the early 18th century, when Wren’s devoted son embarked on a defensive collection of documents to display his father’s greatness, under the telling title of Parentalia, the success or failure of his work has been made to depend on the virtues or vices of his life.

The designs of humans and of their God were, at that time, drenched in morality. Churches were to display the right relation between the Almighty and the believer, so their layout was inevitably controversial. The heavens and the human body show His wise benevolence, so getting astronomy and anatomy right counted for much. Wren’s classical authorities linked prudent ethics with hard-headed technique. His imperial Roman source, Vitruvius, explained how architects must master harmonics, astronomy and, in a closing chapter, mechanics. Wren’s apparently multifaceted career as experimenter, philosopher and designer fits squarely on the map Vitruvius drew. Because there were many links between ingenious machinery and cunning machinations, Vitruvius thought to begin his mechanics chapter with a recipe for recouping cost over-runs – just hold the architect’s property hostage till the building was finished. ‘Then the unskilful could not commit their depredations with impunity, and those who were the most skilful in the intricacies of the art would follow the profession.’ Wren plied his many trades in worlds preoccupied by the problems of skill and intricacy, by money troubles and design dilemmas. These are the milieux Adrian Tinniswood sets out to describe.

‘Sir Christopher Wren/Said: “I am going to dine with some men./If anybody calls/Say I am designing St Paul’s.”’ The well-known clerihew, cited by Tinniswood roughly halfway through his book, is unusually apt. Dining and designing provide much of his matter. A former writer for the National Trust, chronicler of country house tourism and lecturer on the history of royal palaces, Tinniswood is well-placed to convey the social life of architecture’s past. A major challenge here is the comparative lack of personal detail, of diaries or intimate correspondence. There is no easy opportunity of the kind offered by John Evelyn or Samuel Pepys, his contemporaries, to explore details of Wren’s domestic affairs or private reflections. Tinniswood’s Wren is a thoroughly public figure: Tory MP, wealthy knight and brilliant don, agile at winning backing from hostile regimes, lauded for his managerial abilities and his network of intellectual and political contacts, excused his administrative or aesthetic peccadillos. He is traced mainly through his lengthy projects as Surveyor-General of the King’s Works, the chief office he held from 1669 until his late, peremptory dismissal at the age of 86 in 1718. Thus the biography sometimes turns into a catalogue of building designs, from university commissions such as Trinity College Library to the host of London parish churches Wren jointly oversaw from the 1670s; from the execution of St Paul’s and the complex of buildings at Greenwich to the abortive plans for Whitehall, Winchester and the rebuilding of the entire City of London. As indispensable accompaniment to this survey, the biography also rehearses Wren’s crucial work in astronomy, medicine and mechanics, most of it conducted even before his assumption of the post of Surveyor-General.

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