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St Bride’s is one of the six city churches designed by Christopher Wren. Despite damage and rebuilding, it has lasted 300 years. The time span matters: ‘Architecture’ wrote Wren ‘aims at eternity’.
Described by John Evelyn as ‘That miracle of a youth’, Wren was the son of a clergyman and the nephew of a bishop. Born in 1632, he grew up in a period of political and social unrest. He went up to Oxford in 1649, the year that King Charles I was executed. And he was a prodigious early achiever: appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College at the age of 25, and Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford four years later.
Astronomy gave Wren a link to mathematics and to engineering, and hence to architecture. With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, following the period of the Civil War, new buildings were commissioned and the new forms of English Baroque architecture were introduced. The profession of ‘architect’ did not yet really exist, so that it was in the guise of an academic that Wren designed the classically styled chapel for Pembroke College Cambridge and then the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford in 1664. By this date he had become a founding member of the Royal Society.
And when in 1666, a year after the disastrous Plague, the Great Fire of London burned the centre of the city to the ground, it was Wren who saw an incredible opportunity, presenting to the King an outline plan for the city within 10 days of the conflagration. Although his scheme was not taken up, he was appointed to the Commission for the re-building of the City, and within three years, by 1669, he had produced the first version of a design for the new Cathedral of St Paul’s. And in the same year, at the age of 37, he was appointed to the post of King’s Surveyor.
Wren went on to oversee the building of 51 city churches, he designed numerous other buildings as Surveyor to the King, as well as completing the design and building of the great new Cathedral itself - the first time that a cathedral building had been created within the lifetime of its architect. It was a stupendous achievement.
This postcard reproduces the portrait of Wren from 1711 painted by his friend Sir Godfrey Kneller. It hangs on the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery. It lives with the many worthy subjects chosen by the trustees of the Gallery as luminaries and exemplars who would enlighten generations to come. Such a portrait was seen by the founding spirits of the Gallery, most especially the historian Thomas Carlyle, not only as a moral example for the betterment of contemporary society but also as a way back in time, in his phrase ‘a candle’ for the illumination of history. We stand where the painter stood as if we were facing the person painted.
Both portraits, and appearances, are of course notoriously deceptive. The great portrait painter John Singer Sargent said: a portrait is a painting with a little something wrong around the mouth.
Wren does not look entirely inspiring here. He is rather stiffly seated, with his right arm resting on the ground plan of St Paul’s, a pair of dividers in his hand, and a mathematical text holding the plan on the table: the link between designing and maths is explicit. He looks out at us slightly imperiously, Kneller having apparently caught his mix of logical intelligence and creative genius (note the long artistic fingers). This is a man in his professional pose and attire – he appears well-defended as we might put it now. There is little sense of his well-documented charm or wit. But perhaps the image does reflect quite accurately his life alone: he had never re-married after the death of his second wife 31 years earlier.
Wren was physically quite small, and Kneller treats him kindly, increasing his stature by picturing him from below. Nor in the portrait does he appear to be the 79 he was in 1711 – although wigs could disguise the effects of aging. So the artist has given us a man much more youthful, confidant and assured image than Wren might actually have looked or felt as he sat to be painted.
And with reason. Although 1711 was the period when the great Cathedral project was being completed, and hugely admired, it was also a time of great difficulty and dispute. For some years there had been a simmering row between Wren and the Dean and the Commission for the Rebuilding of St Paul’s, partly to do with power and control - governance issues – in part political, and partly to do with changing architectural tastes. Wren did not choose to retire gracefully, and Europe’s greatest architect was effectively sacked 7 years after this portrait was painted.
St Bride’s itself was built between 1671 and 1678; the brilliant spire above us, with its famous wedding cake design in five octagonal stages, was added only after additional funds had been found between 1701 and 1703.
St Paul’s was a great modern piece of architecture based on classical and renaissance models. Equally, St Bride’s was designed by Wren to fit into the site of its medieval and earlier foundations, but also to break out of the previous Gothic mould of English churches and proclaim its affinities with the Roman basilica and the clear open spaces of Dutch reformist churches.
The huge project of re-building the whole group of City churches was quite as ambitious as creating for St Paul’s a dome of a type and scale that had never been attempted before. Both needed engineering, building skill, management and vision.
If one key theme here is innovation, then another is team work. All of Wren’s architecture was created in close collaboration with other surveyors and designers, most notably the brilliant Robert Hooke and the strangely pedantic Nicholas Hawksmoor. There were also the builders and craftsmen such as Kit Kempster or Joshua Marshall, or most famously Grinling Gibbons or Jean Tijou, whose embellishments in wood and iron, were a graceful and dazzling complement to Wren’s mathematical and restrained baroque style. And there were also the many clerks, and many hundreds of workers who lifted the stones, who kept the accounts, who plastered the ceiling and walls.
Team work is never easily portrayed within an oil painting. It is better understood through the buildings themselves. Wren’s famous memorial phrase: Circumspicie, in full: ‘Reader, if you require a monument, look around you’ should really apply not just to the great architect but to all who were part of this great enterprise.
The first function of a portrait may be to capture a likeness (something we now take for granted in our media age), but it has a larger purpose in conveying across generations, and even across cultures, the recognition and honouring of achievement. This man was famous then, and we have good reason to understand that now.
We clearly have other ways of giving honour to achievement: the much argued about ‘honours system’, the gifts traditionally given when someone leaves a job, the plaques, stones and inscriptions to record something of those who have died.
But in an age somewhat obsessed with the image, and therefore the brittleness of celebrity – and with the oddest seeming idea of asking so-called ‘celebrities’ to undertake trivial public trials – there is a danger of mistaking the image of the person for their qualities within.
Wren left his monument for our use – perhaps towards eternity - but he also sets an absolute standard for an enquiring mind, for determination, and for vision: this we can admire, and it is also a standard from which we can learn. This is the same idea, the same proposition, for contemplating achievement and recognising quality that St Paul sets out in his letter to the Philippians:
‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’.