Wren was an English scientist and mathematician and one of the country’s most distinguished architects, best known for the design of many London churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a founder of the Royal Society and his scientific work was highly regarded by Sir Isaac Newton.
Christopher Wren was born on 20 October 1632 in East Knoyle, Wiltshire, where his father was rector and later Dean of Windsor. Wren was educated at Westminster School (1641 to 1646) and after leaving school he spent the next three years building up a broad knowledge of science. He experimented with sundials and also a pasteboard model of the solar system, which exhibited his artistic as well as astronomical skills. Wren entered Wadham College, Oxford on 25 June 1649, received a B.A. degree on 18 March 1651 and his M.A. from Oxford in 1653. He was elected a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, in 1653 and lived in the College until 1657. He showed an early talent for mathematics and enjoyed inventing things, including an instrument for writing in the dark and a pneumatic machine. In 1657, he became Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London. Wren was part of a scientific discussion group which held weekly meetings where scientists exchanged ideas – the early life of what would become the Royal Society. In 1662, this body received its Royal Charter from Charles II and ‘The Royal Society of London for the promotion of Natural Knowledge’ was formed. In addition to being a founder member of the Society, Wren was president of the Royal Society from 1680 to 1682. In 1661, Wren became Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and held this post until 1673.
Wren’s interest in architecture developed from his study of physics and engineering. In 1663 he designed the chapel at Pembroke College, Cambridge, commissioned by his uncle the Bishop of Ely. In the same year Wren submitted a model of his design of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the first of his projects to include a dome and from then on, architecture was his main focus. In 1665 Wren visited Paris, where he was strongly influenced by French and Italian baroque.
Wren’s greatest opportunity in architecture came in 1666, following the Great Fire of London, which destroyed much of the medieval city. Appointed Commissioner for rebuilding the City of London in that year, he carried out a survey of the are destroyed by fire with the help of three surveyors, one of whom was Robert Hooke. Wren produced ambitious plans for rebuilding the whole area but they were rejected, partly because property owners insisted on keeping the sites of their destroyed buildings. However, Wren designed 51 new city churches, as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. In 1669, he was appointed surveyor of the royal works which effectively gave him control of all government buildings in the country. He was knighted in 1673.
In 1675, Wren was commissioned to design the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, for Flamsteed who had been appointed as Astronomer Royal in that year. In 1682, he received another royal commission, to design a hospital in Chelsea for retired soldiers, and in 1696 a naval hospital in Greenwich. Other buildings include Trinity College Library in Cambridge (1677 – 1692), and the facade of Hampton Court Palace (1689 – 1694). Wren often worked with the same team of craftsmen, including master plasterer John Groves and wood carver Grinling Gibbons
Wren died after catching a chill while travelling to his London home on 25 February 1723. His gravestone in St Paul’s Cathedral features the Latin inscription which translates as ‘If you seek his memorial, look about you.’