The evidence of Christopher Wren

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C. R. Ashbee

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1896

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22-24

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'The evidence of Christopher Wren', Survey of London Monograph 1: Trinity Hospital, Mile End (1896), pp. 22-24. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=117195 Date accessed: 20 April 2014. Add to my bookshelf


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CHAPTER V. THE EVIDENCE OF SIR CHRISTOPHER WREN.

It remains now to discuss the authorship of the buildings: in doing this, I shall confine my remarks only to the earlier portion of the work—that of 1695, and which is noted on the plan as the stem of the T.

Internal Evidence.

To the architect, the first evidence must necessarily be internal, and the many features which the Trinity Hospital has in common with the other works of Wren, leave little doubt as to its authenticity. It is only necessary to compare it with the work at Greenwich and Chelsea, or with the designs of Pembroke or Emmanuel at Cambridge, to show this. The long low pediment, which is a characteristic in the side wings of the Chelsea Hospital, is developed as will be seen (pl. 3, p. 6) in the Mile End Hospital, the treatment of the quoins and the modillions is another marked feature that both buildings have in common, and the argument of suitability to purpose is one that counts for much when the work of Wren is in question. Just as in the Chelsea Hospital, and this is a point that Fergusson in his entirely unsatisfactory critique of this building misses sight of, (fn. 1) the whole design is instinct with the element of soldier life, barracks, drill and regularity, so in the Trinity Hospital the designer has understood that he is working for seamen, there is an air about it of cabins and bunks. Perhaps the most noteworthy Wren feature, however, is the treatment of the Chapel in its relation to the rest of the building. Reference to Mr. Pennell's drawing (frontispiece), or to the bird's-eye view (pl. 2, pp. 4, 5) and still more to Gribelin's print, will show the severe and simple handling of the central mass in its relation to the surrounding brickwork. Not only in the Chelsea Hospital, but also in the designs for Emmanuel College, (fn. 2) and in other Wren buildings do we find this feature, and it is very marked in the work at Mile End. There is, further, the evidence of the mouldings (pl. 5, p. 30), upon which Mr. Penrose laid stress, in his remarks before the Charity Commissioners' enquiry, though I am inclined to attach less weight to this, not only for reasons which will directly appear, but because it was customary at this period (1695), to leave such work, especially in London buildings, very much in the hands of the executant workmen, who, as we know in the case of the Strongs, acted a great deal on their own responsibility, receiving only general suggestions and the small scale drawings or sketches from the revising or superintending architect.

Collateral Evidence.

Passing from the internal evidence, there is much to establish the traditional assertion, that the work is by Wren, (fn. 3) and it is always fair to accept tradition where internally confirmed, unless definitely proven false. We know that he surveyed the Stepney Green estates, which bordered on the hospital grounds, for the Wentworth family. We have proofs of a very close intimacy with Evelyn through the Royal Society, and, what is still more important, a direct communication between him and the Trinity House officials. "We went" writes Evelyn in his diary on May 21st, 1695, "to survey Greenwich, Sir Robert Clayton, Sir Christopher Wren, Mr. Travers (the King's surveyor), Capt. Sanders, and myself." This passage is most noteworthy, for it is of the year when the Hospital was built, and it brings the great architect in immediate conjunction with the two men who must inevitably have had the greatest voice in the planning and building of the new foundation. Capt. Mudd, of Ratcliff, had, as we have seen, left the money to build the Hospital, but Evelyn, by virtue of his authority in architectural matters, his position in the corporation, together with his father-in-law's previous benefaction; (fn. 4) and Capt. Sanders, whose munificence and later bequest completed and enriched the work, these two men must have seen it through. When we search into what other possible authors the building may have had, we find that there were two men who were engaged in surveying for Evelyn at Deptford, and therefore probably for the Trinity House at various times, Joel Gascoine and John Grove. Of the former there are some interesting plans in the British Musuem of the Deptford docks, (fn. 5) but it would appear that Gascoine died in 1692, and I find no evidence that Grove worked for Evelyn before 1700. Sir Christopher Wren, it is to be observed, had also been specially employed at an earlier date (1668), in the erection of the old Customs House, which was destroyed by fire in 1719, and with the building of which the Trinity Corporation was no doubt associated. We may also further put in evidence the close connection between the Wentworth Estates which Wren surveyed, and the Corporation, for as early as 1617, in a quarrel between Lord Wentworth and his copyhold tenants, the Corporation had been made joint Trustees with the Goldsmiths' Company, of a deed of settlement between him and them. (fn. 6)

On the other hand it may be urged that there is no documentary evidence to prove that Wren built the Hospital, that if he had done so we should have heard of it, and that there is no reference to it either in the Parentalia or in Elmes' life of Wren. To the first of these objections I do not attach much weight, for all the documents that might have proved it, one way or the other, were destroyed by fire subsequently; and for the other objection I think I am able to account.

The Hospital the joint creation of Wren and Evelyn.

My own view then is that the existing Hospital was designed probably by Evelyn himself, with the assistance, and under the immediate superintendence of Wren, that indeed it was their joint creation. All who have studied the conditions under which building operations were carried out in the later Stuart times, and the authority with regard to them which Wren as Surveyor General held, will know that in the first place, he was not in any way in the position of a modern architect towards a work, but acted as a sort of County Council and regulator of taste to all buildings, and that in the second, the workshop or body of masons or builders, who carried out work, were left much more autonomous, and free to exercise their own individuality in details. When we add to this the prominent part that the cultured amateur took in the inception of work; for architecture under Charles II., especially after the Fire, became the fashionable hobby, we know that it was quite possible for a fine building to be put up of which some man of taste was, to begin with, the designer. The omnipotent Surveyor General then set his imprimatur upon the work and made possible alterations and additions, and it was finally executed without what are nowadays called "Architects' Drawings" by a body of highly trained workmen, doubtless the London Masons' Company, of whom such men as the Strongs were members, and who wrought in a full understanding of their work and with still much of the mediæval tradition.

There is about the Trinity Hospital, a certain cultured amateurishness that gives it its peculiar charm, there is too that delight in garden architecture, which we know was Evelyn's particular hobby Both these points rather reveal the true authorship, and when we add to this the strong Wren characteristics which I dwelt upon at the beginning of this chapter, the close intimacy between Wren and Evelyn, the fact that they had worked together before in London building, (fn. 7) Evelyn's own position in the Trinity Corporation, and the absence of all other evidence to the contrary, the conclusion upon which I have ventured would not seem unfounded. Furthermore Evelyn worked not for himself, but as a member of the Trinity Corporation; he was also only an amateur architect, so he would neither lay claim to the authorship of the building himself, nor be claimed as the author by others; while Wren, who as Surveyor General, would in any case have had to pass the work, would, as it was only partly from his hand, not claim it either; this then accounts for it not being mentioned in the Parentalia or Elmes' life of Wren. It is a vulgar affectation now-a-days that unless a work of art can be labelled with a great name it does not pass muster, since vulgar people cannot appreciate it for its intrinsic beauty. I should be sorry to have laid myself open to the taunt of encouraging such vulgarity, but the historical importance that accrues to the Trinity Hospital as the joint creation of two such great Englishmen as Sir Christopher Wren and John Evelyn, justifies the risk.

Footnotes

1 History of Architecture.
2 See Willis & Clark's History of Cambridge.
3 Dictionary of Architecture, letter W, 1853-87, Fol. The buildings are given under the list of his works
4 See above page 14.
5 Map Room British Museum. See also an interesting set of dock plans of 1698.
6 Robinson's History of Hackney, edition 1842, page 372.
7 See Evelyn's letter to Sir Samuel Tuke (1666) on the coincidence of his and Wren's plans for London re-building. (Wheatley's "Evelyn").