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Wren’s Churches
and the City of London

Report of the lecture
given by Tony Tucker
on May 28th 2014

Sir Christopher Wren has been described as the most influential British architect of all time although he lived in an age when the profession of architect, as understood today, did not exist.  He was born in 1632 and showed an early talent for mathematics and enjoyed inventing things.  Tony questioned the usefulness of “a double writing instrument” although Wren’s work on blood circulation, the problem of finding longitude at sea and the lunar influence on atmospheric pressure and gravitation was surely to be applauded.  His study of mathematics, physics and engineering probably led to his interest in architecture and his first commissions were to design the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford and a chapel for Pembroke College in Cambridge.  In 1657 he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Graham College and along with other mathematicians, scientists and scholars he became a Founder Member of the Royal Society.

Architecture became his main focus and in 1665 he visited Paris where he was strongly influenced by French and Italian Baroque styles although many of his designs were in the Classical style.

In 1666 the Great Fire of London destroyed much of the medieval city providing a great opportunity for Wren.  Tony shared many images of the remains of some of the 51 new city churches that Wren designed and Canaletto's painting of the Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day clearly demonstrated how London’s panoramic skyline was dominated by their beautiful spires, no two the same.

Wren always wanted to use the best craftsmen available and we were treated to examples of how his designs showing use of light, columns, domes, vaulting, cupolas, interplay of shapes and work in stone, wood and plaster work had been so beautifully executed.  We agreed with Tony in that he had left the best to last when he showed photographs of “St. Stephen, Walbrook”.  This church is an exquisite example of all that is best about Wren’s work.

Of course, we cannot write a review about Tony’s excellent lecture without mentioning one of Wren’s best known works, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  How did Wren “get away with it”?  If you are Wren and your design is rejected, you exploit a loophole in the Royal Warrant that approves the new design.  The warrant allowed “for variations, rather ornamental than essential” and so you cleverly incorporate ideas from your own rejected, but favourite, design the “Great Model”.  How clever and what a wonderful result- one of our National Treasures.

Sir Christopher Wren was 90 when he died.  Had he really been “that miracle of a youth” and did he have “something superhuman about him”?  We certainly think so and we thank Tony for sharing his enthusiasm for the architect and his amazing designs.

Marian Heathcote

Read about the guided tour which Tony Tucker led for us

Author and lecturer, Tony Tucker
with his handy "Visitors Guide to the City of London Churches"