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Spotlight on Sir Christopher Wren

Spotlight on Sir Christopher Wren

06 March 2019

Sir Christopher Wren is one of the most important and influential British architects of all time. The RIBA Collections archive holds a vast number of drawings and photographs of his buildings. Ahead of the RIBA Friends visit to St Paul’s Cathedral later this month, we take a look at the breadth of Wren’s achievements.

Not only a highly skilled architect, Wren was also a keen scientist. Much of his work was published in “Parentalia: Or, Memoirs of the Family of the Wrens”, a record drawn together by Sir Christopher’s son after his death. Many of the images from this book are now part of the RIBA Collections.

On the anatomy of the river eel (c) RIBA Collections

Wren provided many of the anatomical drawings for the textbook of the brain, “Cerebri Anatome”, first published by Thomas Willis in 1664. On the anatomy of the river eel (above), may have been provided for a similar anatomical book. RIBApix contains a large collection of some of Wren’s other scientific drawings, such as his drawing of a weather clock.

These images show another side, and another skill, to the Wren we are familiar with. RIBApix also holds some sketches by both Wren and his office, including a design for the Houses of Parliament and for St Stephen Walbrook.

Wren also inspired countless other architects and designers. In 1838, Charles Robert Cockerell created a composition entitled “A Tribute to Sir Christopher Wren” showing just how much Wren had shaped London.

A Tribute to Sir Christopher Wren (c) RIBA Collections

Wren’s buildings have consistently informed the way London is designed, and in the early nineteenth century there were plans to create a St Paul’s Bridge, leading directly to the Cathedral. This design by Arthur Beresford Pite, is roughly where the Millennium Bridge is now.

An image of alterations to Temple Bar, improving the street whilst also incorporating Wren’s original designs is one such example of how architects have used Wren’s designs and worked them into a more modern version of London.

Design for alterations to Temple Bar, Fleet Street (c) RIBA Collections

Of course, few famous architects have escaped Louis Hellman’s “Archi-têtes” series, and Sir Christopher Wren is no exception. He has been turned into his most famous building, with his seventeenth-century wig transformed into the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

Sir Christopher Wren (c) Louis Hellman / RIBA Collections

Wren was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral after his death in 1723 at the age of 91. A piece of his coffin is now held in the RIBA Collections, illustrating his importance to later generations. Perhaps nothing can sum up Wren’s achievements so much as the Latin inscription on his own gravestone in St Paul’s Cathedral, “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” which translates as: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look about you”.

RIBA Friends of Architecture will visit Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, on Tuesday 26 March. Exclusively for RIBA Friends, this behind the scenes tour will take you to the Cathedral Triforium, Architectural Archives, Conservation Room and Model Aisle, where you will see some of the treasures that St Paul’s holds as well as hidden architectural gems. Not a RIBA Friend yet? Find out more about Friends and how to join. Join by 14 March and attend the St Paul's event for free. 

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