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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

“On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren”, by Lisa Jardine

624 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0060959104

“Reader, if you seek his monument – look around you”.

Thus is Sir Christopher Wren’s greatness embodied in St Paul’s cathedral, an architectural masterwork that took 40 years to complete and his final resting place. Lisa Jardine’s biography, On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, puts that stunning but singular achievement in a much richer perspective. He was born to a life of privilege that evaporated when Charles I was deposed and executed (his father was a Knight of the Order of the Garter). Suddenly, Wren’s family was in danger of losing life as well as property. These were Wren’s student years, and during this time he became pragmatic – and he survived. It was the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England that likewise restored the fortunes of the Wren family, too late for the father, but at precisely the right moment for the son. Charles II restored the monarchy, and restored the fortunes of Wren.

Fortunately, much of the painstaking research which drives this biography is not painful to the reader. We learn as much – in some cases, more – about other scientific “virtuosi” and “club-men”, and the braid of political machinations that entangled them, than we do about Wren; a bonus, this. Jardine has taken a considerable risk as far as a popular readership is concerned. Her multi-subject narrative moves backwards and forwards through time and place, not always in reader-friendly synchromesh. Wren was a Renaissance man, best known for his architecture, but he also “mapped moons and the trajectories of comets” and “pursued astronomy and medicine during two civil wars.” But how did he learn to be an architect? Why, by being so fearfully clever that he turned the mind that had made him Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford (look it up) to questions of structure and aesthetics.

In our age of nerdy specialisms, Wren’s rapid progress reminds us that a fully inquisitive brilliance can grasp many subjects to a high level. His ability to understand architecture was based on science; he knew how perspective worked, in great detail, and his geometric abilities meant he could examine drawings of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia mosque – which, incidentally, gave him the idea for St Paul’s hemisphere within a dome – and know implicitly how the structural forces deployed themselves. So, too, did Robert Hooke, Wren’s closest friend and a key figure in the network of scientists without whom Wren could not have blossomed so fully. Thus, once Wren got the Big Job (which included restoring 51 churches in the City damaged by the Great Fire) their work was often indivisible. Wren was the conceiver, Hooke the detail man, who designed experiments to find out if Wren's structural innovations would work.

Jardine has written a great intellectual biography, complete with great slabs of 17th Century prose that are slammed down, for good or ill, in the text like hunks of uncooked meat. She tends to lurch from subject to subject, sometimes repeating things, and the nationalism of her interpretation keeps her from allotting much space to Wren’s international links in astronomy and architecture. All told, she has given us something rich and bold, and a biography that illuminates such a towering figure of a man.

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