Observer Review: His Invention So Fertile By Adrian Tinniswood Essay, Research Paper
What you see is what you getHis Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher WrenAdrian TinniswoodJonathan Cape £25, pp463In the days before the Dome and the Wobbly Bridge catapulted them blinking uncertainly above stairs, Britain’s architects struggled to find explanations for the massive public indifference to them and all their works. Britain, they were always saying, is a fundamentally literary culture rather than a visual one.It wasn’t being blamed for the tower block disasters that bothered them, so much as the fact that nobody thought that they really mattered. They were kept toiling in the boiler room of the nation’s cultural dreadnought, while the poets, writers and playwrights went swanning around in the sunshine up on deck, without so much as breaking into a sweat. What’s putting a few words on paper, compared with the titanic efforts required to get the commission to do a building in the first place, and then struggle with Philistine politicians, venal contractors and corrupt public officials that take up most of an architect’s attention?They consoled themselves by telling each other that it was not their fault. They could pick up plenty of work abroad, even if nobody would give them a job at home. Britain, they muttered darkly, is nothing but a nation of visual illiterates, a country that is not fundamentally interested in architecture, no matter how good it is.It’s a view that spectacularly fails to deal with the case of Christopher Wren, an architect who was just as immersed in dealing with venal contractors, jealous professional rivals, corrupt officials and Philistines as any of his present-day successors. But the image of the dome of St Paul’s, caught in the searchlights and smoke of a London burning under the Luftwaffe bombers’ onslaught, has ensured that Wren’s architecture is an essential and irreplaceable part of Britain’s sense of itself. Wren has been elevated to the status of national icon, right up there with Shakespeare and Dickens. His reputation was unassailable enough for him to be allowed onto a banknote and join that tiny group of whiskery men that we use to measure out our national identity.The Wren cult now ensures that any red-brick country house of the right period with a Portland stone pediment over the front door is instantly ascribed to him. Just as every colonial transplant on America’s East Coast is a Wren design, and any house with a view of St Paul’s was used by Wren as a temporary lodging during the construction of the great cathedral.Yet Wren is not exactly fashionable with the architectural profession today. If Britain’s architects are interested in the lessons to be learnt from the work of their historic predecessors, it’s Lutyens they will be looking at, or Hawksmoor, Wren’s talented assistant who fascinated James Stirling for so long, or, even more, Sir John Soane.Adrian Tinniswood will not do much to change their minds. His biography is conscientious and diligent, but it will not make anybody look differently at a Wren building. Nor has he discovered an entirely unknown Wren. He leaves us little the wiser about exactly what it is that gives Wren’s work its quality, and concentrates instead on the mechanisms of how it got built. The intrigues with the masons and the royal place-men, the bickerings with the clients and the committees, the bribes that the city parishes paid to persuade him to concentrate on their church at the expense of rivals during the post-fire rebuilding, are all fascinating. But it is not central to understanding what makes Wren important.The major elements of Wren’s life – the high church royalist divine for a father, the education at Oxford, the switch from astronomy to architecture, the friendship with Charles II, the trials of the various versions of St Paul’s, the establishment of the Royal Society, the work at Hampton Court, Greenwich and Chelsea Hospital – are all familiar stuff. And there is not that much more to say that has not been said before.Tinniswood continually has to confess himself defeated as a biographer because there is so much that we do not know about the detail of Wren’s personal life. He is lamely reduced at one point to telling us: ‘I would love to have known what Wren was thinking.’ Describing Edward Pierce’s marble bust of Wren in the manner of Bernini, with his high forehead and flowing locks, ‘This is the face of a man you would give a great deal to know.’Clearly Tinniswood could not come up with quite enough. And of Jane Fitzwilliam, Wren’s second wife, he confesses that ‘the woman herself is a complete mystery’. Instead he pads the book with engaging accounts of masturbating scientists, cuckolded architects succumbing to nervous breakdowns, hanged women cut down from the gallows and revived, and homosexuality at court.Entertaining though this is, precious little of it has much to do directly with Wren. And all of it is written in the clipped sentences and condescending style of those trying too hard to make their subjects come alive. Tinniswood permits himself to tell us at one point that ‘if Wren hadn’t come to Paris to shop, he hadn’t come to party either’. More of a problem is that Tinniswood has as much of a blind spot when it comes to bringing architecture alive as he does with words. He is like a tour guide, marching his charges briskly off the coach and through Wren’s life, pointing out the items of interest on the way and relentlessly attempting to keep us amused with constant anecdotes. All right if you like that kind of thing. But for a better idea of what makes Wren special, try standing in the City on a muggy August night, as the offices and the dealing rooms go silent, as the miraculous milkily floodlit dome of St Paul’s soars majestically upward, floating effortlessly above the sublime stone cliff of the east end of the cathedral.