Wren, Christopher

views updated May 18 2018


(b. East Knoyle, Wiltshire, England, 20 October 1632 ; d. London, England, 25 February 1723)

mathematics, architecture.

Wren came from a family with strong ecclesiastical traditions. His father, for whom he was named, was rector of East Knoyle, chaplain to Charles I, and later (1634) dean of Windsor. His uncle, Matthew Wren, was successively bishop of Hereford, Norwich, and Ely. Wren was frail as a child, yet even in his earliest years he manifested an interest in the construction of mechanical instruments that included a rain gauge and a “pneumatic engine.” He was educated at Westminster School, whence he proceeded in 1649 to Wadham College, Oxford. There he became closely associated with John Wilkins, who was later bishop of Chester and a member of that distinguished group whose activities led to the formation of the Royal Society. At Wadham College, Wren’s talent for mathematical and scientific pursuits soon attracted attention. He graduated B.A. in 1651, and three years later received the M.A. He was elected a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1653 and remained in residence there until 1657.

Wren’s interest in astronomy appears to have manifested itself about that time,and it led to his appointment, as professor of astronomy at Gresh–am College in 1657. In his inaugural lecture, after mentioning the relation of astronomy to mathematics,to theology in the interpretation of the Scrip–tures, to medicine, and above all tonavigation, he praised the new liberty in the study and observation of nature, and the rejection of the tyranny of ancient opinions. He retained this professorship until 1661, when he was appointed Savilian profesor of astronomy at Oxford, a post he occupied until 1673.

Wren is best remembered as an architect. His fame as the most distinguished architect England has produced probably has obscured his accomplishments in other branches of science. He was perhaps the most accomplished man of his day. While at Oxford he ranked high in his knowledge of anatomy; and his abilities as a demonstrator in that subject were acknowledged with praise by Thomas Willis in his Cerebri anatome, for which Wren made all the drawings. Wren also is said to have been the pioneer in the physiological experiments of injecting various liquids into the veins of living animals (Wels, History, I, 273).

Wren made important contributions to mathematics; and Newton, in the second edition of his Principia (1713), classed him with John Wallis and Christiaan Huygens as the leading geometers of the day (“Christopherus Wrennus, eques auratus, geometrarum facile proncipes,” p. 19). Chief among his contributions was his rectification of the cycloid. This curve, because of its singularly beautiful properties, had long been a favorite of geometers since its discovery early in the sixteenth century. Many of its properties had been discovered by Pascal; its rectification, the finding of a straight line equal to an arc of the curve, was effected by Wren in 1658 and also by Fermat.

In 1668 Oldenburg asked Wren, along with Wallis and Huygens, to inform the Royal Society of his research into the laws of impact. In a terse paper read on 17 December 1668 and published on 11 January 1669 in the Philosophical Transactions, Wren offered a theoretical solution based on the model of a balance beam on which the impacting bodies are suspended at distances from the point of impact proportional to their initial speeds. Equilibrium in the model corresponds to an impact situation in which bodies approach one another at speeds inversely proportional to their sizes and, Wren postulated as a “Law of Nature,” rebound at their initial speeds, which Wren termed their “proper speeds.” In cases in which the center of gravity of the system, Wren postulated that impact shifts the center of motion to a point equidistant from the center of gravity on the opposite side. Employing the further postulate that the speed of approach equals the speed of separation, Wren set forth rules of calculation that yield the center of gravity from the known sizes and initial speeds of the bodies, and then use the speeds and the center of gravity to compute the final speeds. The close fit of these resutls with experiment seems to have been the basic source of Wren’s confidence in his solution Wren also made a number of pendulum experiments, and Wilkins declared that he was the first to suggest the determination of standard measure of length by means of the oscillation of the pendulum(Weld, History, I,196).

Even as a boy Wren had shown that he had the capacity to become a draftsman of exceptional ability. He probably applied himself to the serious study of the subject when he was commissioned to submit plans for the building of the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, which was completed in 1663. His next major achievement was the building of the Sheldonian Theatre. Oxford, a model of which was exhibited before the newly formed Royal Society in April 1663. It was completed in 1669, and in that year Charles II appointed Wren surveyor of the royal works, a post he retained for half a century.

Meanwhile, the Great Fire had given Wren a unique opportunity to display his skill as an architect. Much of the City of London had been destroyed in the conflagration, including the old St. Paul’s. This building, ancient and ruinous, had long been in urgent need of repairs; and just before the fire Wren had been invited by the dean to prepare plans for the building of a new cathedral. Wren’s original plans were not approved, so he prepared a second scheme, having meanwhile obtained the concession that he might make such alterations as he deemed advisable. This second scheme was accepted, and a warrant for the building of the cathedral was issued in 1675. The first stone was laid on 21 June 1675, and after many delays the cathedral was finished in 1710.

Much of the City having been destroyed, Wren was invited to submit plans for the rebuilding of some fifty churches consumed in the flames. (These are described in plarentalia, 309–318.) At Oxford he built, in addition to the Sheldonian Theatre, the Tom Tower of Christ Church and Queen’s College Chapel. At Cambridge, besides the chapel at Pembroke College, he built the library of Trinity College.

Wren received many honors. The University of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of doctor of Civil Laws; Cambridge awarded him the LL.D. In 1673 he was knighted. Wren also represented many constituencies in Parliament at different periods. In 1669 he married Faith Coghill, of Blechingdon, Oxford, by whom he had two sons, oneof whom survived him. On the death of Lady wren he married Jane Fitzwilliam, by whom he had a son had a daughter.

Wren played a prominent part in the formation of the Royal Society of London, which arose out of the informal gatherings of the votaries of experimental science that took place about the middle of the seventeenth century. These gatherings doubtless were inspired by the growing desire for learning that had been stimulated by the writings doubtless were inspired by the growing desire for learning that had been stimulated by the writings of Francis Bacon, notably the Norrum Organism; but they also owed much to the institution founded under the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, according to which seven professors were employed to lecture on successive days of the week on divinity, astronomy, geometry, physic, law, rhetoric, and music. Of those whose enthusiasm prompted them to associate themselves with the new venture, the best-known, besides Wren, were Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, John Wallis, John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, and William Petty. The meetings, held at Gresham College, were suspended during the troubled times that followed the Civil War. On the return of Charles II in May 1660. they were revived and the need for a more formal organization was at once recognized. Accordingly, on 28 November 1660 the following memorandum was drawn up: “These persons following . . . mett together at Gresham College to heare Mr. Wren’s lecture.” At the end of Wren’s lecture it was proposed that the meetings should continue weekly. A list was drawn up of those interested; and at a meeting held on 19 December 1660, it was ordered that subsequent meetings should be held at Gresham College.

The charter of incorporation passed the great seal on 15 July 1662(which thus is the date of the formation of the Royal Society); Wren is said to have prepared is preamble A Council was formed, with Wren as one of the members. He was the society’s third president, serving from 30 November 1680 to 30 November 1682. The Record Book of the Royal Society of London (1940, 18) pays tribute to Wren’s Zeal and encouragement despite the difficulties facing the young organization: “To him the Royal Society owes a deep debt of gratitude for the constant and loyal service which he rendered to it in its early days.”

Wren also studied meteorology long before it had become an exact science through the work of Mariotte, Boyle. and Hooke. He was one of the earliest naturalists to investigate, by means of the microscope, the structure of insects; and his remarkable skill as a draftsman enabled him to make accurate drawings of what he saw.

Wren was largely instrumental in arranging for the (unauthorized) publication of Flamsteed’s His toria coelestis Britannica (1712),which had been financed by Prince George, Queen Anne’s consort, but had ceased with his death in 1708. When at length printing was resumed, many obstacles were placed in Flamsteedx’s way. Wren had been appointed a member of the committee to oversee the printing of the work; and despite much opposition, he gave Flamsteed great encouragement. Nevertheless, Flamsteed’s wishes met with little response; and after the work eventually appeared under Halley’s editorship, Flamsteed managed to secure three hundred of the four hundred copies printed and at once consigned them to the flames.

In 1718 Wren was superseded as surveyor of the royal works, after more than fifty years of active and laborious service to the crown and the public. He then retired to Hampton Court, where he spent the last five years of his life. He is buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, where a tablet to his memory has been erected.


I. Original Works. Among Wren’s papers that appeared in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society are “Lex collisionis corporum” (Mar. 1669); “De scription of an Instrument Invented Divers Years Ago scription of an Instrument Invented Divers Years Ago for Drawing the Out-line of Any Objective in Perspective” (1669); “The Generation of an Hyperbolical Cylindroid Demonsstrated, and the Application Thereof to the Grinding of Hyperbolical Glasses” (June 1669); “A Description of Dr. Christopher Wren’s Engin Designed for Grinding Hyperbolical Glasses” (Nov. 1669); and “On Finding a Straight Line Equal to That of a Cycloid and to the Parts Thereof” (Nov. 1673)

II. Secondary Literature. See Sir Harold Hartley, ed., The Royal society: Its Origins and Founders (London, 1960); Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of Wrens (London, 1750), compiled by his son Christopher and published by his grandson Stephen; Record Book of the Royal Society of London(1940); and C. R. Weld, History of the Royal Society, 2 vols. (London, 1848).

For Wren’s work on impact, see A. R. Hall and M. B. Hall, eds., The Correspondence of Henry Oldenburg, V (Madison, Wis., 1968), 117–118, 125, 134–135, 193, 263, 265, and in particular 319–320 (Wren’s paper in the original Latin) and 320–321 (an English translation).

J. F. Scott

Wren, Christopher (1632–1723)

views updated Jun 11 2018


WREN, CHRISTOPHER (16321723), English architect. Sir Christopher Wren was an English scientist and architect, important for confirming, in what later was jokingly referred to as the "Wrenaissance," a tradition of classical architecture in England in the seventeenth century that lasted for two centuries. His father was a distinguished cleric, and Wren was well educated, coming into contact while a student at Oxford with a group of scientists who were later, in 1661, to found the Royal Society. His interests at this time were science and astronomy; after receiving his degrees, he was elected a member of All Souls College and in 1661 he became the Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford.

Gradually, however, Wren became interested in architecture, then considered a part of mathematics. When in 1663 his uncle, the bishop of Ely, asked him to design a chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge, he was able to produce an adequate design, simple and classical in its forms. A year later he began the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, a complex structure, taken as to be expected from the design of classical theaters, but roofed with a new truss system without columns, based on a floor plan devised by John Wallis, formerly professor of geometry at Oxford. It was in 1665 that Wren made his only visit abroad, to Paris, where he visited the new classical buildings and met, if briefly, the Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

On his return to London, Wren began further restorations at St. Paul's Cathedral. But in 1666 came the Great Fire, and with it an opportunity for him not only to rebuild the fabric of the cathedral, but also to redesign the whole city of London on a regular and ordered plan. As one of the commissioners appointed to survey the areas destroyed, Wren was very much involved in the restoration of London; when in 1668 he was also appointed surveyor general of the king's works, he resigned from Oxford and turned all his attention to architecture. Of the project for London, which was taken from some of the new plans for Rome, little was realized, commerce and expediency requiring that everything in the city be quickly rebuilt along the existing patterns of streets. Wren was also involved in rebuilding more than fifty local city churches. Their designs, varied and distinct as they were in their plans, established a new form for the Protestant church, with open galleries inside and bell towers outside, often set apart from the basic structure and effectively recalling, in all their classical details, the spires of the older medieval churches that had earlier been present at the same sites.

Wren's design for St. Paul's Cathedral was equally important. Its great dome, with the colonnade running around the drum, taken from a design by Donato Bramante for St. Peter's, was a model for many later buildingssuch as the Capitol in Washington, D.C.where a dome was to be used for purely secular buildings. Wren also worked on several projects for King Charles II. Although many of his designs for Winchester Palace, Whitehall, and Hampton Court were never realized, at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (begun in 1682), and at the Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich (1696 onward), he defined an ideal of monumental architecture, deeply influential on architects of the next generation. In addition, Wren again worked for the universities, notably at the library of Trinity College, Cambridge (16761684) and at Tom Tower at Christ Church, Oxford (16811682), which, following what he called customary rather than natural beauty, was constructed in a Gothic style to complement its older architectural surroundings.

The last years of Wren's life were not happy. His supervision of the Office of Works became haphazard, and in 1718 he was dismissed, retaining only his surveyorship at St. Paul's and at Westminster Abbey. It was then that the Palladian group, led by Lord Burlington, took charge of this office, arguing for a new native style of architecture, based on the theories of Andrea Palladio and Inigo Jones, to replace the more pragmatic baroque style of Wren and his followers. But what Wren had done was of immense importance. And if his designs never reached the quality of those executed by Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, who had begun his career in Wren's office, his ideas about his work, carefully preserved by his son, served to demonstrate, in ways now compatible with the experimental approaches he learned as a scientist, how architecture and its history could be seriously thought about and seen as part of a design tradition that dated back to Italy and antiquity.

See also Britain, Architecture in ; Classicism ; Jones, Inigo ; London ; Palladio, Andrea, and Palladianism .


Primary Sources

Soo, Lydia M. Wren's "Tracts" on Architecture and Other Writings. New York and Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Wren, Stephen. Parentalia, or Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens. Reprint. Hampshire, U.K., 1965. Originally published London, 1750.

Secondary Sources

Bennett, J. A. The Mathematical Science of Sir Christopher Wren. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Jardine, Lisa. On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Career of Christopher Wren. London, 2002.

Jeffery, Paul. The City Churches of Sir Christopher Wren. London and Rio Grande, Ohio, 1996.

Whinney, Margaret. Christopher Wren. New York, 1971.

David Cast

Sir Christopher Wren

views updated May 23 2018

Sir Christopher Wren

The English architect Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) interpreted the baroque style in England and dominated English architecture for 50 years. His most important work is St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

Christopher Wren was born in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, on Oct. 20, 1632, and educated at Oxford. Apparently destined for a career as a scientific scholar, he became professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London when he was 24. In 1661 he was appointed Savilian professor of astronomy at Oxford.

Wren did not give his attention to architecture until he was 30. No information is available to explain the development of his interest in architecture, but his training in science and mathematics and his ability in solving practical scientific problems provided him with the technical training necessary for a man who was to undertake complex architectural projects. His temperament and education, and the society in which he moved, would naturally have inclined him to wide interests.

Early Career

Wren's first venture into architecture came in 1662, when he designed the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, a building intended for university ceremonies. Based upon the concept of a Roman theater, his ingenious interior design left the space free of supports or columns, but for the exterior he had recourse to unimaginative copying from old architectural pattern books.

Wren made only one journey out of England, a visit of several months to France in 1665 to study French Renaissance and baroque architecture. The French journey had significant influence on his work and provided him with a rich source of inspiration.

After the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed much of London, King Charles appointed Wren a member of the commission created to supervise the reconstruction of the city. He had already drawn up a visionary plan for a new London. His design was typical of 17th-century city planning and called for a combination of radiating and grid-plan streets accented by squares and vistas, but his plan was not accepted.

Wren was given the responsibility for replacing the 87 parish churches demolished by the Great Fire. Between 1670 and 1686 he designed 51 new churches; they constitute a major part of the vast amount of work done by him and are known as the City Churches. They are uneven in quality both in design and execution, and their varied plans and famous steeples reveal Wren's empirical eclecticism and his ingenuity. The churches are essentially classical in design or baroque variations on classical themes as adapted to English taste and the requirements of Anglican worship. His work on the City Churches firmly established his position as England's leading architect; he was appointed surveyor general in 1669, a post which he held until 1718, and was knighted in 1673.

While Wren was working on the City Churches, he undertook many other projects. One of the most important was Trinity College Library at Cambridge (1676-1684), an elegantly severe building derived from the late Italian Renaissance classicism of Andrea Palladio as transmitted to England by Inigo Jones in the early 17th century. By 1670 Wren was also at work on designs for a new St. Paul's Cathedral.

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul's, which took nearly 35 years to build, is Wren's masterpiece. The Great Fire had so damaged the old St. Paul's as to render it dangerous, and the authorities decided that a new cathedral was needed. In 1673 Wren presented an impressive design in the form of a large wooden model known as the Great Model. The Great Model, which still exists, shows a cathedral based on a Greek-cross plan and dominated by a massive central dome. The exterior of the building was to have curved walls and an entrance block faced with a portico of giant Corinthian columns. The design of the Great Model is Wren's expression of baroque vitality tempered by classicism and reveals the influence of French and Italian architecture as well as that of Inigo Jones.

The English were accustomed to cathedrals built on the medieval Latin-cross plan with a long nave; the Great Model design, which was much criticized, departed from this tradition and seemed to the Protestant English to be too Continental and too Catholic. In the face of such opposition, Wren prepared a new design based on the Latin cross with a dome over the crossing and a classical portico entrance. This compromise, known as the Warrant Design, was accepted in 1675, but as the building progressed Wren made many changes which reflected his increasing knowledge of French and Italian baroque architecture gained from books and engravings. The Cathedral as finished in the early 18th century is very different from the Warrant Design; the building, a synthesis of many stylistic influences, is also Wren's uniquely organic creation. With its splendid dome, impressive scale, and dramatic grandeur, St. Paul's is fundamentally a baroque building, but it is English Protestant baroque in its restraint and disciplined gravity.

Later Work

After 1675 English architecture began to turn away from the sober Palladianism of Wren's Trinity College Library and to manifest influences from Continental baroque architecture. These trends are evident in St. Paul's and in his later works. English taste rejected the emotional drama and fluid design of Italian and German baroque and was closer to the classical baroque of France. Nevertheless, during the last quarter of the century English architects began to conceive of buildings in baroque terms, that is, as sculptural masses on a large scale, and to introduce elements of richness, grandeur, and royal splendor which reflected the temper of the age. Important example of Wren's design in the idiom of the English baroque are the Royal Hospital at Chelsea (1682-1689), the work done at Hampton Court Palace (1689-1696) for King William III and Queen Mary, and the Royal Naval Hospital at Greenwich (1696-1705).

Wren died in London on Feb. 25, 1723, and was buried in St. Paul's. His tomb bears a simple inscription: "Reader, if you seek his monument, look about you."

Further Reading

A comprehensive modern biography of Wren is Sir John Summerson, Sir Christopher Wren (1953). Older but also excellent is Geoffrey Webb, Wren (1937). Margaret Whinney and Oliver Millar, English Art, 1625-1714 (1957), is valuable for placing Wren within the context of 17th-century English art. For a brilliant analysis of Wren's place in the history of English architecture see Sir John Summerson, Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830 (1954; 5th ed. 1969). Edward F. Sekler, Wren and His Place in European Architecture (1956), relates Wren's work to that of his contemporaries on the Continent. Ralph Dutton, The Age of Wren (1951), places the architect within the framework of his period. □

Wren, Sir Christopher

views updated May 18 2018

Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723). Wren was an instinctive mathematician and geometrician, whence came the constructional resource evident in the span of the Sheldonian theatre, Oxford (1664–9) and the dome of St Paul's (1705–11). Perhaps these disciplines held any baroque tendencies in check, though Wren's father's high Anglicanism, family links with the court, and a visit to Paris in 1665 might otherwise have predisposed him. A more reticent individualist than Inigo Jones, as an astronomer Wren's individualism was of the age of Newton, in which spatial values were pre-eminent. As an architect he is only conjecturally associated with country houses. His proven work ranges from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (1675), to Hampton Court palace (1689–1702) and Greenwich hospital (1696–1702). Apart from his masterpiece, St Paul's, Wren designed some 25 churches for London between 1670 and 1694. In 1669 surveyor-general of the king's works (until 1718), Wren was knighted in 1673, the year of his celebrated portrait bust by the mason-sculptor Edward Pierce.

David Denis Aldridge

Wren, Sir Christopher

views updated Jun 08 2018

Wren, Sir Christopher (1632–1723) English architect, mathematician, and astronomer. After the Fire of London (1666), Wren designed more than 50 new churches in the City of London based on syntheses of classical, Renaissance, and baroque ideas; the greatest of these is St Paul's Cathedral. Other works include Chelsea and Greenwich Hospitals, London, and the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford.


Sir Christopher Wren

views updated Jun 27 2018

Sir Christopher Wren


English polymath who, after the great fire of London (1666), designed the new St. Paul's Cathedral and over 50 churches. He also designed the Greenwich Observatory. Wren was a charter member of the Royal Society, becoming that body's president in 1680. He produced the first lunar globe (1661), determined the arc length and center of gravity for the cycloid (1658), independently established conservation of momentum (1668), and proposed a unit of length based on pendulum oscillations (1673).

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