Much as his most famous building does over the skyline of central London today, Christopher Wren towers over the history of British architecture. Yet as Kerry Downes reminds us, he was so much more than that. Born to a High Anglican minister, he demonstrated a scientific aptitude that led to appointments to a chair of astronomy at first Gresham College, then to the Savilian chair at Oxford. He came to architecture almost incidentally, yet his genius led to his appointment as surveyor of the king’s works at the age of 36, a position he would hold for nearly four decades. Coming in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, the disaster not only paved the way for the reconstruction of St, Paul’s Cathedral but work on churches in dozens of parishes throughout the city, all of which bore the hallmark of his genius.
In assessing Wren’s architectural achievements, there are few better guides than Downes, a longtime architectural historian and the author of several books on the architect. Taken from the entry he wrote on Wren for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, it is a good overview of his life and achievements. While it suffers from the absence of images of the buildings Downes describes, it offers a well rounded assessment of Wren’s accomplishments, one that does not overlook his scientific work as all too many other studies tend to do. For anyone seeking an introduction to the man and his achievements, this is the book to read.