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.

In his previous writings Tinniswood reckoned that historic buildings have no enduring reality – their sense shifts with use. Wren himself thought architecture aimed for eternity. So here Tinniswood tries to render Wren’s timelessness as a feature of its own time. Since he lacks enough information effectively to animate his subject, he relies on the anecdotes of Wren’s colleagues, masters and servants to evoke the world in which his churches and palaces, chapels and hospitals, took shape. This was a society of intimate relations between patrons and clients. Few were more able, or indeed luckier, than Wren. While his uncle was in the Tower for recalcitrant royalism, the young scholar nevertheless got support from several of Cromwell’s kinsmen. The Lord Protector burst into one dinner to offer a deal for the prisoner’s release, and was in any case soon persuaded to help Wren himself to a prestigious professorship in London. After the Restoration, when many judged discretion the better part of valour, the pre-eminent churchman Gilbert Sheldon supported Wren’s work at Oxford, then got him a decisive advisory role at St Paul’s before its (rather fortunate) destruction in the Great Fire. Wren gratefully named his firstborn son Gilbert. He might then have waited a long time to succeed the cavalier poet Sir John Denham as Surveyor-General, but Denham broke down when his young wife was seduced by the King’s brother: he appeared before Charles II to declare that he was the Holy Ghost, poisoned his faithless wife with chocolate, then died. Once in post, Wren and his colleagues were often treated to posh dinners by grateful or exigent parishioners keen to hasten rebuilding. Records of corporate hospitality, Tinniswood remarks, show Wren as no more, but certainly no less, unethical in business than his contemporaries.

Tinniswood makes plentiful use, too, of the diary kept by Wren’s close colleague on the London churches scheme, the brilliant natural philosopher Robert Hooke. ‘Eat with great stomack,’ Hooke recorded after one pub dinner with Wren and the churchwardens of St Stephen Walbrook. Like Wren, the energetically obsessive Hooke combined the Vitruvian careers of arts, experiment and architecture. He designed the buildings of Bedlam and flying machines, just as Wren designed wheeled pulpits and pasteboard models of the Moon. Hooke’s diary records frequent coffee-house chats with Wren on architecture and the weather, on sailing and farming. It also notes Hooke’s orgasms, and his frequent illnesses. We have no comparable records for Wren. ‘What we don’t know,’ Tinniswood observes in passing, ‘could fill another book.’ He hopes Wren’s family life was happy. He married twice, had one mentally handicapped child, and another who began accumulating Parentalia. We know that he hung ‘a bag of live boglice’ round his second wife’s neck to cure her of thrush. He sneered at women’s taste, although, Tinniswood reports, he did get on rather well with the unhappy, unpopular, earnest, intelligent and ‘exquisitely tasteful’ Queen Mary II. Feminine domination of French fashion much corrupted Parisian designs, Wren moaned after his journey there in late 1665. He complained that a ladylike passion for ‘edging’ catastrophically persuaded St Paul’s churchmen to insist on a balustrade round the roof. He held that women had fewer ‘busy thoughts’ because they got out less than their husbands. Tinniswood certainly makes his subject busy, his story gossipy. He offers no excuses: ‘I want my heroes to be people, not ideas.’

In Wren’s case, at least, this is an odd contrast. As Tinniswood’s final chapter demonstrates, he has long been treated as the personification of an idea, praised or condemned according to the reigning taste. ‘Architecture has its political use,’ Wren stated at the head of his innovative history of the art. The fortunes of his work show this to be true. In the mid-18th century his churches were damned as mere playhouses, ‘loose and lascivious’, and the Gothic Revivalists thought little better of him. More recently, the idea of Wren has been rapidly assimilated to that of the nation itself. During the First World War, one preacher spoke of St Paul’s as ‘the parish church of the British Empire’. There were nationwide celebrations at the time of his bicentenary, and Aldous Huxley described him as ‘the finished product of an old and ordered civilisation’. His embodiment of genteel English civilisation no doubt helped inspire the interesting decision in the 1960s to shift the blitzed church of St Mary Aldermanbury from London to Fulton, Missouri, as part of a Churchill memorial. It also helps explain why he is so often granted the illegitimate paternity of many buildings in Britain, and some in the United States.

Tinniswood’s is at least the seventh major monograph devoted to Wren’s life and work since the Second World War, and his status is frequently used to intervene in current issues of politics and planning. Tinniswood closes with a quotation from Prince Charles’s crazed vision of a future London roofscape dominated by St Paul’s and made of ‘the kinds of materials Wren might have used’. When the Whitechapel Gallery held a fine anniversary exhibition in 1982, the then director, Nicholas Serota, hoped Wren would offer ‘a salutary example’ for the planners of Docklands. He didn’t, except for a more recent Dome at Greenwich. The occult tradition recounted in Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat, with its invocation of Wren’s dark protégé Nicholas Hawksmoor, and conspiracy theories based on hermetic geometries, seems now a more potent model: to write of Wren is to study a cult. As John Summerson, doyen of architectural historians, put it in a brilliant early essay on the problem of Wren’s status, ‘the almost superstitious esteem in which his works are held’ has long made it hard to judge his enterprise and legacy.

Where Summerson challenged superstition, Tinniswood is less keen to criticise: would-be judges are counselled against any harsh assessments. An early building of the 1660s, Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre, sometimes thought awkward and mismatched, is here deemed ‘little short of revolutionary’; the almost contemporary chapel of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, once seen as somewhat naive, reveals ‘the sheer excitement in the joy of making’. Flaws and errors in the designs of the grander works of state from the period of the Glorious Revolution, such as Chelsea Hospital, Greenwich Hospital and Hampton Court Palace, are defended as coherent solutions to complex or exceptionally difficult briefs. The seven successive plans for St Paul’s all seem inspired. The first model developed after the Great Fire in 1669 is ‘a daring experiment’. The difficulties posed by the uneven arrangement of main and subsidiary arches beneath the dome are explained away: ‘The Surveyor rarely allowed prejudice or principle to stand in the way of a solution.’ It is no coincidence that so much of this defensive language draws on an analogy with the work of the experimental philosopher and learned mechanic. Where Summerson thought Wren’s ultimate failure as an architect was due to the sadly unimaginative empiricism of 17th-century English science, Tinniswood sees Wren’s triumphs, rather, as linked with a society of exciting scientific enterprise. He describes the world of Restoration natural philosophy as ‘unfamiliar and magical territory’ – and uses it to attempt the re-enchantment of Wren’s idea.

Tinniswood remarks that ‘until Wren’s generation there were no scientists in the sense that we understand the word today.’ Nor, we might add, were there until at least two centuries later. The members of the Royal Society, which Wren joined in 1660, however curious, sceptical and ingenious, cannot easily be seen simply as forerunners of modern researchers. Tinniswood, reasonably, doubts any straightforward connections between the structural solutions in Wren’s architecture and the rational mechanics he discussed with the Society’s fellows. These last were certainly opportunists. One of them profited from the unwonted appearance of corpses in St Paul’s after the Fire to taste the liquid left in the coffins (insipid, but redolent of iron). Being callous often helped. Wren told his fellows that heating a rag previously rubbed in the wound of an injured servant-woman would make her scream – he’d tried the experiment himself. He witnessed trials in which an inebriated Cambridge graduate had sheep’s blood pumped into him, because, it was said, of the similarity between lamb’s blood and that of Christ. To overthrow ancient ideas about the production of black bile from the spleen, Wren cut the organ out of dogs to see how they fared. To overthrow Old St Paul’s, he used gunpowder and battering rams which killed some of his workmen. Later, deaths at Hampton Court got him into trouble with an unusually benevolent Treasury. Astonished by London weavers’ unwillingness to buy his pricey new silk loom, Wren smashed it up.

Such episodes found their way into a play which satirised Wren and his fellow philosophers, Thomas Shadwell’s The Virtuoso. Wren and Hooke gloomily discussed this satire’s Drury Lane success. Modish wit could be toxic for natural philosophy’s reputation. Summerson thought it significant that Wren’s mantle was inherited by the comic playwright turned grandiose architect John Vanbrugh, emblem of the welcome transmutation of overly rational into truly imaginative design. Tinniswood also notes the interesting contrast between Wren’s natural philosophy and Vanbrugh’s wittier, ‘more colourful’ career. But Wren’s own natural philosophical projects were also distinguished by witty theatricality. For mid-17th century experimenters, staging mattered in showing nature’s powers. Wren was adept at philosophical histrionics. The mechanics of showmanship and design are key to his connected endeavours in natural philosophy and architecture, a stronger link than reading Wren’s engineering merely as applied science. Experimental facts were established by an ingenious trial before a competent audience or by presenting a paper scheme so circumstantial that it could stand for direct witnessing. Wren learned these techniques at Oxford in the 1650s, where the head of his college, the well-connected divine John Wilkins, set out a programme of ‘mathematical magic’ to engineer effective shows of machines and instruments designed to mimic or reveal nature. So Wren made models to imitate the strange shape of Saturn, then offered the King a model of the Moon, ‘since no one globe can suffice for the expansion of his dominions.’ The dramatic, if vicious, anatomy Wren and his colleagues professed – performed in theatres, demonstrated before audiences – was at least as spectacular. Ingenious models, whether of a cathedral, an anatomy or a lens-grinding machine, were used to show off philosophical principles to gentlemen, ‘for the incouragement and satisfaction of benefactors that comprehend not designs on paper’; and to artisans, to give ‘inferior artificers clearer intelligence of their business’.

So it was easy to read past and present buildings as so many models of the political and natural orders. Noah’s Ark, ‘the first piece of Naval Architecture we read of’, was obviously a ‘Model of the whole Earth’. Wren carefully analysed its structure, just as he did the managerial nightmare of the Tower of Babel. While Milton was versifying Samson as a moral exemplar of suffering under corrupt monarchy, Wren wondered how the Israelite strong man had pulled off his famous trick. Concerned, at the time, with St Paul’s collapsing roofs, he offered a cunning analysis of the way in which a Philistine temple might have been pulled down by one blind but vigorous human. Tinniswood sees his architectural models as a ready transfer from such experimental philosophy. On paper, pasteboard and wood, the buildings modelled were to function as part of a system of long-range control centred on Wren’s headquarters in Scotland Yard. Tinniswood rightly points out how much engineering and administration mattered to Wren. His scheme for rebuilding London would have made ‘trade the new religion’. His favourite Parisian building was not a palace or a dome, but the quays along the Seine, which he saw as the product of brilliant French planning. He compared them favourably with the Pyramids, as though the moderns could surpass the ancients by virtue of their superior bureaucracy.

Part of the wit of model-making and showmanship was to understand how to dominate audiences. Wren pondered how his publics behaved. As a young Oxford scholar, he invented a double-writing instrument to copy letters as you wrote them. Cromwell, organisation man par excellence, soon got to see it. Wren reflected that in such cases the world was more impressed by complexity than apt simplicity. ‘Every one when he sees it, will be ready to say, I could have thought of this myself.’ Problems of elegant display persisted. ‘The key that opens treasures is often plain and rusty, but unless it be gilt, the key alone will make no shew at court,’ he opined when planning displays for Charles II’s visit to the Royal Society. The Merry Monarch never came. Not long afterwards, when starting on plans for rebuilding St Paul’s, Wren proposed building his great dome around what was left of the old tower, then demolishing the tower at the very end. This was fiscally prudent, since scaffolding costs would be saved. It was also theatrically politic, since Wren knew how devoted Londoners were to the old steeple: ‘many unbelievers would bewail the loss.’ According to the sources Wren admired, St Paul himself had brought the Gospel to Britain. It is telling that he used the same term for enemies of the True Faith and those sceptical of his own sacred designs.

In the end, the public unveiling of the rebuilt Cathedral was supposed to be a spectacular coup. Tinniswood guesses that most were delighted. But he also cites Augustan London’s modish critics, led by the Earl of Burlington, who diabolically quoted Scripture to their own purpose: ‘When the Jews saw the second Temple, they wept.’ What Freemasons such as Wren adored, the wits now mocked. Amid the tears, powerful enemies engineered his dismissal in favour of a Whig businessman whom Tinniswood justly, if oddly, describes as ‘a crook with the moral rectitude of a tax gatherer and the management skills of a sheep’. Perhaps this ovine reference is supposed to recall Wren’s early work on animal and human blood. In any case, the morally righteous victim of this sad putsch was soon to be interred in the capital’s cathedral, now his monument. The architects who displaced Wren in public favour, such as the remarkable John Wood at Bath, scarcely inspired any sudden move towards modern rationality. While Wren sought for mechanical rationales of ancient temples, Wood sought to rebuild in England’s principal pleasure resort edifices he claimed descended from Solomon, the Druids and Pythagoras. Notions of enlightened civility were hard to separate from those of illuminist mystique. Thus grew the cult of the inspired designer, while the shifting meanings of Wren’s projects were ossified within the national tradition. One of many reasons to retell the story of Wren’s life is to invite reflection on the way that tradition’s idiosyncratic mix of conservative entrenchment and bold experiment began.