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HALL OF FAMEon 5 March 2003
Writer Lisa Jardine has written a very interesting book about Sir Christopher Wren and the extraordinary 91 years of life he lead. Even when you allow for the nearly century long life of this man it is still amazing the scope of what he accomplished, and how much more of his work we would enjoy today if it had been finished. Sir Wren served a variety of Monarchs, all who wanted to place their own mark upon London, and this often lead to his projects being delayed, stopped in the midst of their development or never getting off the pages he created them upon.
This book is not a traditional biography that focuses exclusively on the primary individual and only touches on his peers when appropriate. Lisa Jardine explores in varying detail, at times very carefully, the lives of the men that were contemporaries of Sir Wren. These detours will be welcome by those who already are well educated as to who Sir Wren was and what he did. If you are picking up this book for an in depth view of this man alone, this book will not satisfy your goal. An example that literally illustrates my point is the 16 color plates that are to be found in the book. Only 3 pages are dedicated to his architectural drawings, as many are dedicated to documents that bear only his signature, and more are dedicated to portraits of the royal heads of state he served together with portraits of their children. The same can be said for many of the black and white reproductions throughout the book, they are primarily of his peers, friends, and at times his adversaries. There are contemporary photographs of some of the churches he reconstructed with mention of the architectural sleights of hand that were used to make the buildings appear to the eye differently than they actually sat on the site. But the details are not shown, simply the building, I wanted the details.
The author also spends a great deal of time on the order of The Knights of the Garter. This is a fascinating subject and group of people that has catalyzed entire books on its own. In this work it again occupies color plates that I would have like to have seen occupied by Sir Wren's work, I did not need to see the front page of a book about the society that was not even written by Sir Wren. There was also a style employed by the author that at times, while very accurate, was redundant. Lisa Jardine would describe an event, for example between Sir Wren and a friend; she would then place the original letter that would once again explain what she had just told the reader. Now reading the original source material is interesting, but in a 483 page book that purports to cover the 91 year life of one of History's noted personages, once this additional material is subtracted together with all the photos and images that are not of Sir Wren and his work, the amount of the book dedicated to the man and his work is substantially less than the whole.
I enjoyed the book but it is not a book that after a reader completes it, will set it down and feel they have a good understanding of the marvels he created for London and its Royal Families. His life was too long, too complex, and too varied in its pursuits to crowd his story with so much material on others. There is no reason the 16 pages of color plates could not have been devoted to his work, I did not need to see the children of kings and queens. I wanted to see his buildings and his architectural drawings that are beautiful art by themselves.
By all means read and enjoy this book, it will certainly cause you too seek out more reading on one of the ore remarkable men to have even inhabited London, and to have placed his mark on History.
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on 16 April 2008
I awarded this book four stars. I docked one star (and considered docking two) because I thought it did an excellent job of framing Christopher Wren squarely in the context of Civil War and Restoration society. Jardine is not afraid to make interpretative comments about how this volatile political environment may have affected Wren's outlook and although some feel forced, overall I thought her arguments were telling. Her discussion of the Order of the Garter (mentioned by other reviewers) as a symbol of the monarchy and one that touched Wren's own life is another unusual feature. The book is less successful in giving a feel for Wren as a living person - his character, how he spoke, how he behaved, his habits, his daily routine and so on. We learn that he was precocious, a polymath, diplomatic and good with people, devout, respected and so on but where is the man himself? It would be unfair to compare this book to Tomalin's biography of Pepys given the wealth of very personal material available in Pepys' diaries. On the other hand, Inwood's biography of Wren's long-time collaborator and friend Robert Hooke gives a far stronger impression of the man than does Jardine's biography of Wren. Maybe that material simply does not exist with Wren, but one would think there would be something more. So, as a biography of Wren, probably three stars. As an exploration of the works of Wren and an introduction to related characters, four stars.
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on 7 March 2009
Phew finished at last! Well it took them 40 years to finish St Paul's Cathedral and it feels as if it took me that long to finish this book!

What is it with some of these authors that thay have to put in so many notes? For a text of 432 pages there are 80 pages of notes with 4 or 5 per page. This breaks up the text and makes it difficult to keep the narrative thread. After a while I just gave up on them reading them only in groups of 20. This was still every 4 or 5 pages or so!

And was it also necessary to quote so many of the letters at such length? Sometimes over several pages?

My final quibble is the amount of repetition, the same quote is used on page 291 and page 430. Another quote is used on page 375 and page 412 and another quote in the notes on page 500 and page 82!

Lisa Jardine is normally an excellent writer, Ingenious Pursuits for example is an excellent read (with only 10 notes or so per chapter!), but this book was just hard work. There is a good book in here somewhere that needs a bit of judicious editing to bring out.

My verdict - sack the Editor!
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on 2 September 2002
This is a gorgeous book, in which the lovely presentation match the richness of the content. Wren is truly fascinating, and it opened my eyes to his undoubted genius. The first chapter about how the Wren family's circumstances & politics were intertwined with the fortunes of Charles I and subsequently Charles II is very intriguing, and the whole book is authored in a way that makes it an effortless read, and very engrossing.
The author has skillfully merged her undoubted expertise and passion for science with artful writing, built around a gripping narrative style.
I can't recommend this highly enough -- it's one of the best books I've read this year, and definitely the best history/biography book.
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on 20 October 2015
Wren lived in an important period of English history. The reformation has been well, and extensively, written about. Charles I to Charles II, fire of London and so on. Wren's life stretched across this entire period and the book not only teases out the story of this famous person in architecture, but also expresses clearly Wren's place in history. Not just architecture, but also astronomy as well as other areas of science. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society and his life crossed paths with other leading players in the advance of science. A most enjoyable read, clearly relates what Wren achieved, but is a little bit bland when it comes to relating lifestyle.
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on 14 February 2016
A wonderful biography, written by an academic, in great detail, giving a fantastic picture of the age in which Sir Christopher Wren lived.
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on 20 November 2013
I've bought the bloody book, so now leave me alone. 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 Zeeerrrooooooooooooooooo
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