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Christopher Wren and Contemporaries
on 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.