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Sir Christopher Wren, polymath and starchitect – three online talks by Simon Thurley

posted on 18/05/23


Three hundred years after his death Sir Christopher Wren is often hailed as Britain’s greatest architect. But he was no lonely genius. Like architects of today he was at the head of a large office of assistants, he controlled huge budgets and commanded hundreds of workmen. He also worked for the rich and powerful Stuart monarchs. As well as the catalogue of architectural achievements, which were considerable, Wren’s success lay in his ability to charm his clients, manage budgets, schmooze politicians, organise his office and command his workforce.

In this, Wren’s anniversary year, Simon Thurley brings together a lifetime of scholarship to reveal the individual behind the famous buildings. What was the secret of his success with four successive monarchs? How did he manage to keep a dozen projects going at a time? Who were the men who laboured in the engine-room of his office? What was that office like and how did he run it? These and other questions will be addressed in this behind-the-scenes exploration of the life of Sir Christopher, which will show us his works in a new and surprising light.

They take place every Monday from 2–16 October 23 at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (11th December 2023).

Register for the webinar series for £45


The talks 

1. A gilded youth (2nd October 2023)

When in 1669 Wren was appointed royal architect there were half a dozen more experienced than he in architecture. His ability to leapfrog the competition owed much to his talent, but it was also politics, connections and personal charm that won him the job. What was it in the young Wren’s background that propelled him to the top and how did this Oxford don adapt himself to the cut and thrust of one of the biggest jobs at court?

2. Patrons, politics and popularity (9th October 2023)

Designing a building in the 17th century was a three-way process, a creative relationship between designer, craftsman and patron. Wren’s genius lay in his management of his patrons, royal and political; he was the great survivor of late 17th-century politics, a charmer and sometimes a chancer. This second talk looks at Wren at court and at Westminster, and the ups and downs of managing powerful patrons while still producing great buildings.

3. City, court and country (16th October 2023)

By the 1690s Wren had a large well-staffed office in Whitehall working on at least three gigantic royal projects. He was also fully engaged on St Paul’s Cathedral, the largest single building of his career and designing for universities, private clients and church wardens. Such a workload could never be managed alone, nor was it. This last lecture looks at the way Wren designed buildings, supervised their construction and worked with a brilliant team of assistants.

The speaker

Simon Thurley

Historian, archaeologist and heritage champion. He was appointed Chair of the National Heritage Lottery Fund in 2021 and is Chair of the House of Commons Conservation Committee. He is an advisor to the government boards created to oversee the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster and is closely engaged with the development of the programme as a non-executive director of one of these boards, the Delivery Authority. He was Chief Executive of English Heritage between 2002 and 2015, and previously headed Historic Royal Palaces and the Museum of London. A specialist on English architecture, Simon has written over a dozen books including Men from the Ministry: How Britain Saved its Heritage, Houses of Power, the Places that Shaped the Tudor World and its sequel, Palaces of Revolution: Life, Death and Art at the Stuart Court.

Register for the webinar series for £45

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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