Of the out-of-door sights of London, none makes upon the stranger’s mind so lasting an impression as huge St. Paul’s, the great black dome of which often seems to hang over the city poised and still, like a balloon in a calm, while the rest of the edifice is buried out of sight in the fog and smoke. The visitor is continually coming in sight of this dome, standing out in the clearest outline when all lower objects are obscure or hidden. Insensibly he forms a kind of attachment to it, at the expression of which the hardened old Londoner is amused; for he may have passed the building twice a day for forty years without ever having had the curiosity to enter its doors, or even to cast a glance upwards at its sublime proportions.
It is the verdant American who is penetrated to the heart by these august triumphs of human skill and daring. It is we who, on going down into the crypt of St. Paul’s, are so deeply moved at the inscription upon the tomb of the architect of the cathedral: –
„Underneath is laid the builder of this church and city, Christopher Wren, who lived more than ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good. Reader, if you seek his monument, look around!”
The writer of this inscription, when he used the word circumspice, which we translate look around, did not intend probably to confine the reader’s attention to St. Paul’s. Much of the old part of London is adorned by proofs of Wren’s skill and taste; for it was he who rebuilt most of the churches and other public buildings which were destroyed by the great fire of London in 1666. He built or rebuilt fifty-five churches in London alone, besides thirty-six halls for the guilds and mechanics’ societies. The royal palaces of Hampton Court and Kensington were chiefly his work. He was the architect of Temple Bar, Drury Lane Theatre, the Royal Exchange, and the Monument. It was he who adapted the ancient palace at Greenwich to its present purpose, a retreat for old sailors. The beautiful city of Oxford, too, contains colleges and churches constructed or reconstructed by him. It is doubtful if any other man of his profession ever did so much work, as he, and certainly none ever worked more faithfully.
With all this, he was a self-taught architect. He was neither intended by his father to pursue that profession, nor did he ever receive instruction in it from an architect. He came of an old family of high rank in the Church of England, his father, a clergyman richly provided with benefices, and his uncle being that famous Bishop of Ely who was imprisoned in the Tower eighteen years for his adherence to the royal cause in the time of the Commonwealth.
He derived his love of architecture from his father, Dr. Christopher Wren, a mathematician, a musician, a draughtsman, who liked to employ his leisure in repairing and decorating the churches under his charge. Dr. Wren had much mechanical skill, and devised some new methods of supporting the roofs of large buildings. He was the ideal churchman, bland, dignified, scholarly, and ingenious.
His son Christopher, born in 1631 (the year after Boston was founded), inherited his father’s propensities, with more than his father’s talents. Like many other children destined to enjoy ninety years of happy life, he was of such delicate health as to require constant attention from all his family to prolong his existence. As the years went on, he became sufficiently robust, and passed through Westminster school to Oxford, where he was regarded as a prodigy of learning and ability.
John Evelyn, who visited Oxford when Wren was a student there, speaks of visiting „that miracle of a youth, Mr. Christopher Wren, nephew of the Bishop of Ely.” He also mentions calling upon one of the professors, at whose house „that prodigious young scholar, Mr. Christopher Wren,” showed him a thermometer, „a monstrous magnet,” some dials, and a piece of white marble stained red, and many other curiosities, some of which were the young scholar’s own work.
There never had been such an interest before in science and invention. The work of Lord Bacon in which he explained to the scholars of Europe the best way of discovering truth (by experiment, comparison, and observation) was beginning to bear fruit. A number of gentlemen at Oxford were accustomed to meet once a week at one another’s houses for the purpose of making and reporting experiments, and thus accumulating the facts leading to the discovery of principles. This little social club, of which Christopher Wren was a most active and zealous member, grew afterwards into the famous Royal Society, of which Sir Isaac Newton was president, and to which he first communicated his most important discoveries.
All subjects seem to have been discussed by the Oxford club except theology and politics, which were becoming a little too exciting for philosophic treatment. Wren was in the fullest sympathy with the new scientific spirit, and during all the contention between king and Parliament he and his friends were quietly developing the science which was to change the face of the world, and finally make such wasteful wars impossible. A mere catalogue of Christopher Wren’s conjectures, experiments, and inventions, made while he was an Oxford student, would more than fill the space I have at command.
At the age of twenty-four he was offered a professorship of astronomy at Oxford, which he modestly declined as being above his age, but afterwards accepted. His own astronomy was sadly deficient, for he supposed the circumference of our earth to be 216,000 miles. This, however, was before Sir Isaac Newton had published the true astronomy, or had himself learned it.
After a most honorable career as teacher of science at Oxford, he received from the restored king, Charles II., the appointment of assistant to the Surveyor General of Works, an office which placed him in charge of public buildings in course of construction. It made him, in due time, the architect-general of England, and it was in that capacity that he designed and superintended very many of the long series of Works mentioned above. There never was a more economical appointment. The salary which he drew from the king appears to have been two hundred pounds a year, a sum equal perhaps to four thousand of our present dollars. Such was the modest compensation of the great architect who rebuilt London after the great fire.
That catastrophe occurred a few years after his appointment. The fire continued to rage for nearly four days, during which it destroyed eighty-nine churches including St. Paul’s, thirteen thousand two hundred houses, and laid waste four hundred streets.
Christopher Wren was then thirty-five years of age. He promptly exhibited to the king a plan for rebuilding the city, which proposed the widening and straightening of the old streets, suggested a broad highway along the bank of the river, an ample space about St. Paul’s, and many other improvements which would have saved posterity a world of trouble and expense. The government of the dissolute Charles was neither wise enough nor strong enough to carry out the scheme, and Sir Christopher was obliged to content himself with a sorry compromise.
The rest of his life was spent in rebuilding the public edifices, his chief work being the great cathedral. Upon that vast edifice he labored for thirty-five years. When the first stone of it was laid, his son Christopher was a year old. It was that son, a man of thirty-six, who placed the last stone of the lantern above the dome, in the presence of the architect, the master builder, and a number of masons. This was in the year 1710. Sir Christopher lived thirteen years longer, withdrawn from active life in the country. Once a year, however, it was his custom to visit the city, and sit for a while under the dome of the cathedral. He died peacefully while dozing in his arm-chair after dinner, in 1723, aged ninety-two years, having lived one of the most interesting and victorious lives ever enjoyed by a mortal.
If the people of London are proud of what was done by Sir Christopher Wren, they lament perhaps still more what he was not permitted to do. They are now attempting to execute some of his plans. Miss Lucy Phillimore, his biographer, says: –
„Wren laid before the king and Parliament a model of the city as he proposed to build it, with full explanations of the details of the design. The street leading up Ludgate Hill, instead of being the confined, winding approach to St. Paul’s that it now is, even its crooked picturesqueness marred by the Viaduct that cuts all the lines of the cathedral, gradually widened as it approached St. Paul’s, and divided itself into two great streets, ninety feet wide at the least, which ran on either side of the cathedral, leaving a large open space in which it stood. Of the two streets, one ran parallel with the river until it reached the Tower, and the other led to the Exchange, which Wren meant to be the centre of the city, standing in a great piazza, to which ten streets each sixty feet wide converged, and around which were placed the Post-Office, the Mint, the Excise Office, the Goldsmiths’ Hall, and the Insurance, forming the outside of the piazza. The smallest streets were to be thirty feet wide, ‚excluding all narrow, dark alleys without thoroughfares, and courts.’
„The churches were to occupy commanding positions along the principal thoroughfares, and to be ‚designed according to the best forms for capacity and hearing, adorned with useful porticoes and lofty ornamental towers and steeples in the greater parishes. All church yards, gardens, and unnecessary vacuities, and all trades that use great fires or yield noisome smells to be placed out of town.’
„He intended that the church yards should be carefully planted and adorned, and be a sort of girdle round the town, wishing them to be an ornament to the city, and also a check upon its growth. To burials within the walls of the town he strongly objected, and the experience derived from the year of the plague confirmed his judgment. No gardens or squares are mentioned in the plan, for he had provided, as he thought, sufficiently for the healthiness of the town by his wide streets and numerous open spaces for markets. Gardening in towns was an art little considered in his day, and contemporary descriptions show us that ‚vacuities’ were speedily filled with heaps of dust and refuse.
„The London bank of the Thames was to be lined with a broad quay along which the halls of the city companies were to be built, with suitable warehouses in between for the merchants’ to vary the effect of the edifices. The little stream whose name survives in Fleet Street was to be brought to light, cleansed, and made serviceable as a canal one hundred and twenty feet wide, running much in the line of the present Holborn Viaduct.”
These were the wise and large thoughts of a great citizen for the metropolis of his country. But the king was Charles II.! Our race produces good citizens in great numbers, and great citizens not a few, but the supreme difficulty of civilization is to get a few such where they can direct and control.