Christopher Wren was born in religion, nurtured in science, and completed in art. His father was dean of Windsor, his uncle was bishop of Ely. He went to Westminster School and to Wadham College, Oxford. At twenty-one (1653) he was a fellow at All Souls College there; at twenty-five, professor of astronomy at Gresham College, London; at twenty-nine, Savile professor of astronomy at Oxford. He seemed absorbed in science. Mathematics, mechanics, optics, meteorology, astronomy, fascinated him. He rectified the cycloid (found the straight line equivalent to the cycloid curve). He demonstrated the laws of impact, and was credited by Newton with experiments leading to the three laws of motion. 86 He labored to improve the telescope and the grinding of lenses. He investigated the rings of Saturn. He invented a device for turning salt water into fresh water. He performed for Boyle the first injection of a fluid into the bloodstream of an animal. He proved that an animal could live comfortably after the removal of its spleen. He shared with Thomas Willis in dissecting a brain, and made the drawings for Willis’ Cerebri Anatome. He was one of the first members of the Royal Society, and wrote the preamble to its charter. No one dreamed that he would go down in history as the greatest of English architects.
Circumstances alter careers. It was probably Wren’s skill in drawing that led Charles II to appoint him (1661) assistant to Sir John Denham, surveyor general of works. Soon he found in architecture that marriage of science and art, of the true becoming beautiful, which was the heart and goal of his thought. “There are two kinds of beauty,” he wrote, “natural and customary. Natural is from geometry.... Customary [or conventional] beauty is begotten by the use [habituation] of our senses to those objects that are usually pleasing to us. . . . But always the true test is natural or geometrical beauty.” 87 The geometrically correct, he thought, would of itself please us and be beautiful (like any of the great bridges of the world). From this standpoint he preferred classic to Gothic architecture, and in his first designs he followed the lead of Inigo Jones.
In 1663, for Gilbert Sheldon, bishop of London, he designed the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford; here at the outset he adopted classical principles, raising the circular edifice on lines laid down by Vitruvius in antiquity and by Vignola in the Renaissance. A long stay in France (1664–1666) confirmed his classical predilections, but his admiration for François Mansart’s Church of Val-de-Grâce inclined him to add a degree of baroque adornment to his façades; and he remembered the dome of Val-de-Grâce when he rebuilt St. Paul’s.
He returned to London in March, 1666. In April, at the request of Bishop Sheldon, he drew up a plan for repairing the tottering cathedral, then almost six hundred years old. On August 27 a Commission for the Repair of St. Paul’s accepted Wren’s plan. Two weeks later the church was destroyed in the historic fire of London; the melted lead of its roof ran in the streets.
That conflagration, razing two thirds of the capital, gave architecture an opportunity unprecedented since the burning of Rome. The fire was still smoldering when Wren offered to Charles II a majestic design for rebuilding the city. Charles accepted it, but could not find funds for it, and it conflicted with powerful property rights. Wren busied himself with other projects. In 1673 he prepared a classical design for a new St. Paul’s. The cathedral chapter objected that the design smacked of a pagan temple, and urged Wren to adhere to the Gothic style of the old church. He reluctantly agreed to a compromise by which the interior would have Gothic arches, transept, and choir, but the façade would be a Renaissance columnar portico with a classical pediment and two baroque towers. The result is an unpleasant mixture of styles, but Wren redeemed it by crowning the transept with a dome rivaling Brunelleschi’s at Florence and Michelangelo’s in Rome. St. Paul’s remains the finest church ever built by Protestants.
While that project went on through thirty-five years, Wren, having succeeded Denham as surveyor general, designed fifty-three other churches, many of them famous for towers and spires that united his sense of beauty with his mathematical bent. Add the Custom House in London, the Greenwich and Chelsea hospitals, the chapels of Pembroke College at Cambridge and Trinity College at Oxford, the library of Trinity College at Cambridge, the classical east wing of Hampton Court Palace, thirty-six guildhalls, a number of private houses, and it seems that “no building of importance was erected during the last forty years of the seventeenth century of which Wren was not the architect.” 88 Through the reigns of Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Anne, he retained his place as surveyor general. He retired from practice at eighty-six, but continued for five years more to superintend the work at Westminster Abbey; and some credit him with its towers. He died in his ninety-first year, and was buried in St. Paul’s.
Sculpture was still an orphan in England, but wood carving was a major art. Grinling Gibbons was a worthy collaborator with Wren, carving the choir stalls and magnificent organ case in St. Paul’s, and decorations at Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace, and Hampton Court.
English painting continued to import its masters and discourage its sons. Nevertheless some have ranked John Riley as the best portrait painter of the Restoration. He knew that a mature face is an autobiography; he could read its lines, and between them, with patient insight, he revealed its secrets with unprofitable courage. He was almost ruined by Charles II’s comment on Riley’s portrait of him: “Is that like me? Then, odds fish, I am an ugly fellow!” Much time elapsed before the court realized that this war a spontaneous compliment to the artist’s honesty. Riley transmitted with similar fidelity James II the foolish king, Edmund Waller the turncoat poet, and the Earl of Arundel the vain aristocrat. But when he paitned Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle he recognized genius, and caught its marks in the face and its light in the eyes. “With a quarter of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s vanity,” said Horace Walpole, “Riley might have persuaded the world that he was a master.” 89 He died in 1691, aged forty-five.
Lely the Dutchman and Kneller the German were the fashionable portrait painters of that second Stuart age. Lely’s father was a Dutch soldier, van der Faes, whose nickname Lely (from a lily painted on his house) passed down to his son. Pieter was born in Westphalia (1618), studied painting in Haarlem, and took ship to England (1641) on hearing that Charles I had taste and pounds. He succeeded Vandyck as the most sought-for portraitist in England, and continued so under Cromwell and Charles II. He adopted Vandyck’s trick of endowing his sitters with elegance, even if only in dress. The beauties of the court besieged him; so in the National Portrait Gallery we see Nell Gwyn plump and naughty, and the Countess of Shrewsbury, notorious for her gallantries; and at Hampton Court Palace Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Kéroualle still flaunt their nipples from the walls. Lovelier is John Churchill pictured as a child, with his sister Arabella; 90 who would expect this angelic boy and angelic girl to become the invincible Duke of Marlborough and the irremovable mistress of James, Duke of York? Lely achieved knighthood and riches by such portraits. Charles II and half a dozen dukes sat for him. Pepys found him “a mighty proud man . . . and full of state,” 91 living in “pomp and victuals,”92 and dated three weeks ahead.
In 1674, six years before Lely’s death, a German arrived in London, resolved to succeed Sir Peter in portraiture, profits, and knighthood; and he accomplished his program. Gottfried von Kneller was then twenty-eight. Charles II made him court painter, and Kneller kept that post under James II and William III, who dubbed him knight. Sir Godfrey painted forty-three members of the politically powerful Kit Cat Club, 93 and ten sirens of William’s court, 94 and deprived Dryden and Locke of character. As everyone itched for immortality, Kneller turned his luxurious studio into a mass-production factory with an unprecedented staff of aides, each charged with some specialty—hands, drapery, lace. Sometimes he took fourteen sitters in a day. He built a mansion in the country, and commuted between it and his town house in a coach-and-six. He kept his head on his neck through all political overturns, and died in bed and honors at seventy-seven (1723). In that year Reynolds was born, Hogarth was twenty-six, and native painting was coming into its own.
The Puritans had nearly obliterated art, but they had not silenced music. All but the lowliest homes had some musical instruments. Amid the great fire Pepys noticed virginals on almost every third boat carrying salvaged goods on the Thames. 95 “Music and women,” he wrote, “I cannot but give way to, whatever my business is”; and he mentions his flageolet, lute, theorbo, and “viollin” as frequently as his amours. 96 Everybody in his Diary plays music and sings; he takes it for granted that his friends can join in part song; 97 he and his wife and their maids sing in harmony in his garden, and so bearably that neighbors open their windows to hear them.
In the Restoration jubilation music burst forth in all its forms. Charles brought in musicians from France, and soon let it be known that he favored tuneful, cheerful, intelligible compositions that did not take mathematics for melody. Organs were built again, and rumbled in the churches of the Establishment; those designed for St. George’s Chapel at Windsor and the cathedral at Exeter were among the wonders and thunders of the age. But even in church choirs solemnity was replaced by dramatic displays of instrumental virtuosos and vocal soloists. Charles II and James II ordered music for odes and masques to celebrate royal events; churches commissioned music; theaters ventured on opera. English composers and performers began to eat again.
In 1656 Sir William Davenant persuaded the Protectorate government to let him reopen a theater on the ground that he would produce not a play but an opera. The First Dayes Entertainment that he staged was less an opera than a series of dialogues preceded, interrupted, and followed by music; but in that same year Davenant presented, in his own Rutland House, the first English opera, The Siege of Rhodes. 98 The closing of the theaters by the plague and the fire interfered with these experiments, but in 1667 the enterprising Davenant offered a musical adaptation of his alleged father’s Tempest. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas marked the full arrival of opera in England.
As so often in musical history, Henry Purcell’s genius was in large part a product of social heredity—i.e., adolescent environment. His father was master of the choristers at Westminster Abbey; his uncle was “composer in ordinary for the violins to his Majesty”; his brother was a composer and dramatist, his son and his grandson continued his role as organist in the Abbey. He himself was allowed only thirty-seven years of life (1658–95). As a boy he sang in the Chapel Royal till his voice broke. As a youth he composed anthems that continued to be heard in English cathedrals for a century. His twelve sonatas (1683), for two violins and organ or harpsichord, brought the sonata form from Italy to England. His songs, anthems, cantatas, and chamber music, said Burney, “so far surpassed whatever our country had produced or imported before, that all other musical compositions seem to have been instantly consigned to contempt or oblivion.” 99
Busy with his work as organist and composer, it was not till 1689 that Purcell produced Dido and Aeneas, for a select audience at a girls’ school in London. The music, even the famous overture, seems to us now thin and feeble; we have to remember that opera was still young, and that audiences did not then have our liking for noise. The final aria—Dido’s lament, “When I am laid in earth”—is one of the most moving airs in the whole history of opera.
King Arthur (1691), for which Dryden wrote the words and Purcell the music, is not quite an opera, since the music seems to have little relation to the mood or events of the play—just as the play had little connection with the Arthurian cycle as we know it in Malory and Tennyson. A year later Purcell made a further advance with incidental music for The Fairy Queen, an anonymous adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He did not live to see it produced; the music was lost, was discovered in 1901, and is now ranked with Purcell’s best.
In 1693 he composed the most elaborate of his many odes for St. Cecilia’s Day. But the finest of these is the joyful Te Deum and Jubilate of 1694; this was performed annually at the festival of the Sons of the Clergy till 1713, when it shared the honor with Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum in alternate years till 1743. For Queen Mary’s funeral (1695) Purcell wrote a famous anthem, “Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts.” In his final years he contributed incidental music to Dryden’s Indian Queen. Apparently he fell sick before he could complete this, for the music of the concluding masque was provided by his brother Daniel. He died, probably of consumption, on November 21, 1695.
Despite the vitality of the Restoration, English music had not yet recovered from the cutting of its Elizabethan traditions by the Puritan interlude. Instead of rooting itself again in English soil, it followed the royal lead and bowed to French styles and Italian voices. After Dido and Aeneas the English operatic stage was dominated by Italian operas sung by Italians. “English music,” wrote Purcell in 1690, “is yet but in its nonage, a forward child, which gives hope of what it may be hereafter . . . when the masters of it shall find more encouragement.” 100