Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Life of Christopher Wren

by Adrian Tinniswood

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-19-514898-0
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Sometimes plodding, always illuminating biography of the renowned English architect and overachiever.

Christopher Wren (1632–1723), writes British architectural historian Tinniswood, came of age among unusually brilliant contemporaries. His classmates at the Westminster School, for instance, included future Anglican cleric Richard South, future poet John Dryden, and future philosopher John Locke. Even in such distinguished company, young Wren was reckoned to be unusually gifted, and he soon distinguished himself as a prolific coiner of what his family album called “New Theories, Inventions, Experiments, and Mechanick Improvements,” contributing to anatomy, astronomy, optics, cryptography, hydrology, military engineering, textile manufacturing, and agriculture, to name just a few fields. (He was also fond of performing medical experiments on dogs, the details of which are not for the squeamish.) A Leonardo da Vinci for his day, Wren was, Tinniswood demonstrates, practically as well as theoretically minded; he managed to thread his way through complex political tangles in a time of anti-monarchical, anti-Catholic revolution to gain favored status in the courts of several English monarchs. Though appointed professor of astronomy at Oxford at 29, Wren strove for greater renown, which he would achieve by designing St. Paul’s Cathedral and other public buildings in the wake of the Great Fire of London in 1666. As Tinniswood shows, Wren’s ultimately unrealized plans for remaking the city were well ahead of their time, though his trademark hybrid of Gothic and classical styles would be seen as old-fashioned toward the end of his very long life. Tinniswood’s account sometimes gasps under the weight of overabundant detail, but it adds much to our understanding of Wren in the context of his time and as a craftsman whose “holistic approach to design” and “need to control every stage of the process . . . were something new in British architecture.”

For all aspiring Renaissance people, as well as for students of urban design, art history, and early modern European history.