A special relationship

On a Grander Scale: the outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren

Lisa Jardine <em>HarperCollins,

''And so become . . . the principal ornament of that our royal city, to the honour of our government and of this our realm." With these stirring words Charles II granted the commission for the rebuilding of St Paul's, recently devastated by fire, to Christopher Wren in November 1673. Most people would agree that the Surveyor of the King's Works, as Wren had been appointed four years earlier, succeeded admirably in fulfilling his master's mission statement. Three centuries later, an excellent case can still be made that St Paul's is "the principal ornament" of London, a city which certainly seemed royal enough this year, at the time of the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations (which culminated in a service in St Paul's itself).

Lisa Jardine, in a full and fascinating biography, examines the steps by which Wren reached the post of royal surveyor - which he proceeded to hold for 45 years under five successive monarchs, dying at the incredible (for the time) age of 90. She begins by examining his boyhood, the son of a royalist dean at Windsor. Most convincingly, Jardine is concerned to show that this High Anglican background, marked by a devotion to the religion, politics and character of Charles I, was of powerful importance in forming Wren, and influenced him to the end of his life. It was especially true because this world soon collapsed into civil warfare and destruction of the royalist cause, followed by the "martyrdom" of the king himself, Wren's father's benefactor. Born in 1632, Wren was ten when hostilities broke out, old enough to treasure pre-war memories, and suffer his family's eclipse in subsequent years.

This see-saw experience was common to all those royalists of Wren's background: when Charles I handed over his George, the insignia of the Garter, to his chaplain on the scaffold with the word "Remember!" he spoke to a generation, including Wren's greatest friend, the physicist Robert Hooke. The most striking example of all was Wren's future master, Charles the Prince of Wales, who was two years his senior. Jardine does indeed pay enormous attention to the character of Charles, as well as the politics of the period, as being necessary to understand Wren. Such a wide-ranging approach sometimes leads her astray - there is no need to drag up the old slur about Riccio being James I's father to explain Charles's swarthy looks, given that he unquestionably had an Italian grandmother, Marie de' Medici, and pictures show him to be a dead ringer for his ancestor Lorenzo the Magnificent. At the same time, this emphasis on the form of partnership between Charles II and Wren, both of them having a "special relationship" with their fathers, is welcome.

Charles II emerged from the years of exile (starting in France along with his mother, a French princess) deeply impressed with the way his first cousin Louis XIV was beginning to express dynastic glory - and incidentally political absolutism - in terms of glorious spectacle and architecture. When the diarist John Evelyn argued that the material splendour of Charles II's restored regime would match that of Louis XIV on the strength of Wren's palaces and public buildings, he pointed to the symbolic value of Wren's work, as well as his practical success.

Yet the royal connection, and the opportunities given to Wren by the wholesale damage of the Great Fire, are by no means the whole story. Jardine is particularly good on the extraordinary width of Wren's interests and achievements. As one who has written on Francis Bacon and Erasmus, she is insightful on Wren's manifold talents. As a boy, he was a mathematical prodigy, spent two years as a technician-assistant to Dr Charles Scarburgh, assisting him in mathematical and scientific activities, and became a fellow of All Souls, Oxford.

The first Wren building executed was the chapel of Pembroke College in 1663. Throughout all the stages of his varied career, Wren, as Jardine demonstrates, showed an intense curiosity and a practical imagination. I particularly enjoyed his report on the "declining" spire of Salisbury Cathedral in the summer of 1668, shortly before he became surveyor. It was beautifully illustrated by a sketch of a purpose-made piece of ironwork for use in the repairs. And Wren's delight at using battering rams to clear away ruined buildings after the Great Fire, when the neighbours complained about gunpowder, is enchanting: "[he] pleased himself that he had recovered this noble Engine, of so great service to the Ancients in besieging towns".

On a Grander Scale does have one flaw. Carried away, perhaps, by her title or perhaps, like Henry James and his famous long letter, because she did not have time to write a shorter book, Jardine, from time to time, gives us the same information, illustrated by the same quotations all over again. The dangerous gunpowder incident (on pages 292 and 430 respectively) is only one example. Having said that, the illustrations throughout - colour, black and white, and drawings - are a rich feature of the book and contributed much to this lay person's understanding of architecture and its problems.

Antonia Fraser's most recent book is The Six Wives of Henry VIII (Phoenix Press)

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2002 issue of the New Statesman, In defence of Edwina Currie, the woman who dared