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28th April 2023

Christopher Wren at 300

Christopher Jackson visits churches by Christopher Wren (1632-1723) in the City of London, and reports on the nature of work both in his day and in our own


I am standing in St Stephen Walbrook with Helen Vigors who is Heritage Project Manager with the Diocese of London, and leading on the educational programme Wren at 300, the series of celebrations which marks the 300th anniversary of Wren’s death.

I have been to this magnificent church before but today, with Vigors for company, I am looking at it like I’ve never done before. “One of Wren’s theories was that everybody should see the altar,” Vigors says, pointing to its central position. “Clear glass is also a feature of Wren,” she continues. “His quote was: ‘You can’t add beauty to light’. This is a particularly good example of natural light.” Then she gestures at the high windows, which eschew the principle of stained glass. “This whole area is quite compact – you have the Walbrook Club here, and Rothschilds there, and Starbucks and Bloomberg opposite. But the windows are quite high up and so it hasn’t had that theft of light by contemporary London.”

Theft of light: the phrase has an undeniable resonance and sounds like it wants to be a broader metaphor, as if by being so modern we’ve somehow entered a sort of accidental dark ages when it comes to understanding the past which lies around us.

Wren’s work is so ubiquitous that we struggle to see him. Wren’s contemporary Nicholas Hawksmoor’s popularity, helped by Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor (1985), has increased. But with Hawksmoor, there are only six major churches to consider; quite a different proposition to Wren’s 21 (and at one time there were 51 plus St Paul’s Cathedral). The whole question of Christopher Wren can seem almost too big to make time for. Accordingly, we have built our modern life around him, always respecting him but very often ignoring him.

Sometimes we’ve done worse than that. In his book-length essay On Beauty, Roger Scruton lists St Paul’s as an example of a building which has been destroyed by the ugliness which surrounds it – the protruding cranes, and the gigantic Norman Foster-ish monstrosities of glass which arguably spoil a once elegant skyline.

When I ask Dr. Michael Paraskos, a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Centre for Languages, Culture and Communication at Imperial College about this, he is in strong agreement: “Roger Scruton is right. The enclosure of Wren’s Monument brings particular shame on the city. But I think there is a much bigger danger in London than just losing sight of Wren’s achievement. We are in danger of losing the city’s unique identity as a whole, which of course Wren helped establish.”

When I ask him for examples, he says: “When you read about companies like Marks and Spencer wanting to trash not only their own history but the city’s by demolishing yet another building on Oxford Street, and a few years ago King’s College wanting to do the same with a great swathe of historic buildings in the Strand, you have to wonder what’s wrong with people.”

As my afternoon with Helen continues, I come into a deeper realisation of how much of a pity this is. We have placed obstacles in the way of understanding one of the undisputed giants of our history – to all our detriment.

We are, for one thing, too busy for him. Paraskos adds: “It’s worth remembering that barely a century ago, people still pulled down Wren churches without too much thought, and now we think of them as vandals. One day we will look on those who do the equivalent today and think the same. It’s a kind of stupidity.”

Wren at 300 is a definitive pushback against this ‘stupidity’, and has many aspects to it: it is educational, historical and conservationist. I tell Helen that when we experience these buildings, it’s difficult to know what’s Wren and what’s not since the history of destruction is so layered and complex.

She agrees: “It’s so difficult to unravel. St Mary Le Bow, for example, is completely rebuilt – but the things which are rebuilt are rebuilt to the Wren design. That church was the highest point in London before St Paul’s and it was really badly bombed.” But we’re not just talking about World War II: “The story of destruction starts with the Great Fire, and then the rebuilding, and then the Church Commissioners in the Victorian era took decisions which led to reduction in numbers. St Magnus the Martyr was moved with the widening of London Bridge. Then there was the Blitz.”

It is an image of a vulnerable London, where every great achievement is subject to reversal. But perhaps it would be too simplistic to be only despairing about this. It is, after all, as much as to say that these structures exist in the present, and that contemporary skills are still required to keep them going: you can have a career today centred around old buildings.

After a stroll down Queen Victoria Street, we arrive at St Mary Abchurch, a beautiful building I’ve not been to before, tucked away behind a construction site just off King William Street, and not far from the Monument.

Looking up at the Grinling Gibbons reredos, Vigors tells me a bit more about the conservation side of Wren at 300: “The conservation project has two parts to it,” she says. “One is working with Cliveden Conservation Workshop and a number of different experts in different fields. We’re aiming it at the incumbents and staff at churches; we’re seeing how we can equip them in basic conversation techniques. Secondly, we’re doing public-facing things: we’re working with City and Guilds Art School and building Crafts College to deliver workshops.”

So what are the opportunities in the sector which Wren at 300 is seeking to illuminate? “We have demonstrations of pointing, looking at mortars, and stone-cutting, and plastering. What we’re trying to do is to encourage all ages, and explain that this is a sector which needs people to see it as a potential career. It’s not the sort of thing sixth formers know about: the diplomas and qualifications and so on.”

There’s also a tech emphasis to Wren at 300: “We’re also going to be looking at innovative techniques in conservation. We’re looking at model-making with drone footage and drone surveys and how you can model the future deterioration of a building.”

The hope is that this focus on sustainability will have a knock-on effect throughout the City churches: “We’re looking at a number of Wren churches and how they can reach carbon net zero,” Vigors continues. “We’re working with a private architectural practice Roger Mears, as well as surveyors and the faculty at Nottingham Trent University. They’ve put sensors in six buildings and they hope to collect data. We want to make an assessment and support incumbents on that process and give them an idea of what’s possible. Heating is another question – whether you heat under person or under pew. We have warm places and cool places schemes. Eventually we’ll give a toolkit to incumbents.”

We continue our walk, passing the London Mithraeum on our right, arriving in time at another Wren church, St Mary Aldermary, which has a thriving café.

This church seems to have hardly anything in common with either of the two churches we’ve just visited. It has, for instance, stained glass which Wren was generally opposed to, and a certain charming wonkiness about the East window and the roof. When I ask Vigors about this, she replies: “We think it’s like because of the road system outside. Wren worked around problems. Neil McGregor [former Director of the British Museum] talks about how pragmatic Wren was – even when he did St Paul’s he had two designs. One was turned down for being too Italianate. One, which he thought was ugly, was accepted but he was told he could develop it – and he certainly did.”

Another obstacle to understanding Wren is that his work is often so redolent of Italian architecture that one sometimes struggles to discern what in his work was borrowed and what was uniquely his. Vigors again stresses his pragmatism: “I think he was certainly influenced by Italian architecture but then he had to deal with the patrons he had here. They weren’t staunchly or puritanically protestant but they had a need for something to be less elaborate which is why you don’t see gold inside. He responded to each parish and each brief he got.”

So just like architects today, he had to be flexible. What is Vigors’ sense of Wren as a man? “The fact that he was a courtier is probably central. There’s one lovely love letter to his wife; he was fond of his children but wished they’d been more intelligent than they were. The piece he wrote on his tomb: “If you want to see the man look around you” – I think that’s revealing. He also got on with six monarchs – he had to sail a clever path. He must have been a master of diplomacy. He sometimes got cross with builders and he wasn’t always happy with how things went. He was really annoyed when his first St Paul’s was turned down.”

Wren, then, doesn’t seem to have drawn particular attention to himself. The image is similar in fact to Shakespeare or Leonardo da Vinci – of someone quietly getting things done, and not being in people’s faces too much. Greatness very often isn’t flashy; it’s about hard work.

We walk next up to St Martin-within-Ludgate and there meet Susan Skedd who is leading on the social history aspect of the project, the findings of which already up onto discoveries about the world of work during Wren’s time. Skedd’s work has already revealed a rich world with a strong flavour of the contemporary. “One of the fascinating things is that we understand how the parish worked as a form of local government,” Skedd begins, her enthusiasm notable as we stand over a 300 year old chair over by the reredos. “They decided who could live there, and who would be kicked out, and these decisions sound contemporary.” It’s a reminder that for some people somewhere, there’s always a ‘cost-of-living’ crisis.

Susan’s research has led her to look closely at the stories of the craft contractors who worked on Wren’s buildings. She’s asking who they were, where they lived and where they worked. “Masons were more than minor gentry, they were wealthy gentry,” she tells me. “One was William Emmett. He lived in the parish and had his workshop here. That’s our lens – and we’re moving at pace to create those stories.”

This pushes back a bit at the idea of Wren as the archetypal great man – the unique genius who, one might almost imagine, built the world around us alone, and with his bare hands. Skedd laughs: “My easy way out of that idea is to point out that it was a team – it’s very modern. Neil McGregor calls it the ‘Wren system’. What’s extraordinary is the sense of the office and these amazing records which exist in the London Metropolitan Archives. You can see contractors presenting their bills and getting paid, and they’re witnessing each other’s payments.”

This question of teamwork is something which also intrigues Paraskos: “I think it’s a really interesting question for anyone looking at Wren to face. How do we cope with the idea he was some kind of unique, one-off, genius? I think the answer is that, although he was undoubtedly very talented, none of what he achieved in architecture, or in science, would have been possible without lots of other talented people around him. We tend to know about the big names, like Robert Hooke and Nicholas Hawksmoor of course, but then there are half-forgotten people like Edward Woodroffe, John Oliver and Edward Pearce, all working in Wren’s office, drawing up plans, designing things and negotiating contracts as part of a team.”

So the idea of the individual genius doesn’t quite hold water? Paraskos doesn’t think so: “Genius can be thought of as a kind of collective phenomenon, rather than an individual one. I think that was true in Wren’s architectural office, it was true in his scientific work at Oxford, and its true for artists and scientists today. I think it is misleading, but it’s also debilitating for people with real talent, to have to face the myth of genius, instead of the fact of co-operation.”

Another theme is emerging from Skedd’s research: “Wren’s ecosystem was all about the question of “who you know”. For Wren’s buildings, people worked with people they trusted. You get the same people popping up time and again. And Wren could draw on the very best. People who are building not just in the Royal Palaces but for aristocratic clientele. This morning I was looking at an inventory at the death of a glazier called John Brace. He died mid-work and it listed all the clients who owed him money, and it’s this astonishing list of 20 or 25 people. These buildings aren’t in isolation; the people working on them are also working in Bloomsbury, Greenwich, and Hampton Court.”

And what about the humbler people who toiled in the profession? “At the lower end of the scale I’ve come across another fascinating detail,” Skedd says. “There were two workmen – we don’t know their names – who were paid for five days to clear one of the sites, which would have included all the rubble and all of the detritus. That helps you understand the pace of work – it was done with real rapidity.”

Vigors adds: “It’s obviously Office of Wren. In that period of 51 churches plus St Paul’s – you sometimes see ‘approved by Wren’. They’re not all by him. If you’ve got Hooke, and Woodruff and Hawksmoor as your right hand men, you don’t need to be involved in every project.” Skedd adds: “He presided over and inspired and could draw on an amazing array of talent.”

It reminds me of Thomas Heatherwick or Frank Gehry with their hundreds of unsung employees: the world doesn’t change as much as we think it does. Skedd makes another point: “One of the other details I’ve come across with John Brace. You see in his inventory mathematical instruments – and you’re reminded that this is a time when science and architecture go hand in hand.”

Of course, this is another area where Wren might be relevant in our own time, when it comes to the arguments over the curriculum and whether STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics

or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) subjects should get greater coverage on the curriculum for primary and secondary school pupils.

Paraskos draws a broad lesson about Wren’s life as both a scientist and artist: “England has always forced people to specialise too soon and go either to science or the arts, and it’s no good for either science or art. When you look at Wren, or any of the great scientists of the past, it’s very rare for them to have no interest in art, or music, or literature. They were more rounded personalities than we seem to recognise. And Wren is the great example of that, using science to solve not only the technical problems of architecture, but as a kind of experimental method to try to understand aesthetic problems.”

It’s this which, for Paraskos, gives the Wren churches their flavour. “That’s why you get such a lot of variety in Wren’s churches. Each one is a kind of aesthetic experiment. So, he takes the idea of a dome he sees when he visits Paris, he tests it out at St Mary on the Hill in London, then at St Stephen Walbrook, then at St Mary Aldermary, until he’s finally ready to make the most beautiful dome of them all, at St Paul’s Cathedral. That’s interdisciplinarity in action.”

But for Paraskos it’s unhelpful to try and recruit Wren as a poster boy for the cause of STEAM being added to the curriculum: “This is a loaded question as I can only really give my own view and then try to ascribe it to Wren. I suppose what we can say is that what we see in Wren is someone who believed science is important, and who believed the aesthetics of architecture is important. From that starting point we should perhaps ask ourselves whether the increasing exclusion of the arts and humanities from education also show a belief that both science and aesthetics are important? I would say no. But the whole debate is based on a fallacy that there is a distinction to be made between different aspects of human behaviour. That somehow, when a scientist is engaging in an experiment they are not being creative, or that an artist painting a picture or composing a complex poetic metre is not being methodical. It shows a lack of understanding of what it is to be human not to see that we are integrated personalities, in which we move between different ways of thinking and acting all the time. I would question whether our education system understands that.”

As we walk out of St-Martin-within-Ludgate, I ask Vigors what will come out of Wren at 300?  “We want there to be not only an appeal but a feasibility study about how the buildings are used,” she says, “and how we can get people in through education, research and community engagement. Obviously the congregations are falling but the buildings are here, and they’re an amazing resource.”

They are indeed – and because of Wren’s longevity we’ll be doing it all over again in nine years’ time when it comes to the 400th anniversary of his birth. It’s a reminder that Wren isn’t going anywhere, so we need to engage with him now.


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