A lucid portrait, abrim with encyclopedic detail, of the English architect, scientist, and inventor.
Biographers, it is true, have long overlooked Wren (1632–1723), but British historian Jardine (Ingenious Pursuits, 1999, etc.) incorrectly claims that hers is “the first integrated modern account of his career.” Not so: Adrian Tinniswood’s His Invention So Fertile (2002) was both integrated and modern, if a little on the slow side. Without supplanting Tinniswood’s biography, which is more scientifically fluent, Jardine’s is more pleasurable to read as it covers much of the same ground. The author marvels, and appropriately so, at Wren’s scholarly attainments, extraordinary even in an age when such brilliant, multitalented individuals as John Locke, Samuel Pepys, and William Harvey were working their wonders. Jardine does not shy away from the gruesome subjects of Wren’s early scientific experiments; he once claimed that he could “easily contrive to convey any liquid Poison into the Mass of Blood” and set about doing so by slicing open an unfortunate dog and introducing into it “2 ounces of Infusion of Crocus Metall: thus injected, the Dog immediately fell a Vomitting, & so vomited till he died.” Fortunately for the dogs of London (and squeamish readers), Wren turned to architecture, designing St. Paul’s Cathedral and other grand structures in the aftermath of the great London fire of 1666. Caught up in the complex, antimonarchical political struggles sweeping England, he had a way of picking the losing side, which diminished his reputation within his lifetime. Jardine remarks sympathetically that “the failure of each of his royal patrons in turn . . . to see through to completion the great buildings Wren designed for them as their ‘great Monuments’ was symptomatic of their failure to give moral leadership,” and symptomatic of the difficulties he faced as an artist dependent on a fickle, endangered audience.
As solid as its subject’s surviving buildings, and a useful addition to Restoration studies. (16-page color insert, b&w illustrations throughout)