Sir Christopher Wren

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Sir Christopher Wren

by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt
oil on canvas, 1711
49 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1245 mm x 1003 mm)
Purchased, 1860
Primary Collection
NPG 113

On display in Room 9 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

Sitterback to top

Artistback to top

  • Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt (1646-1723), Portrait painter. Artist or producer associated with 1689 portraits, Sitter associated with 30 portraits.

This portraitback to top

In 1711, the year this portrait was made, the architect Sir Christopher Wren was seventy-nine and had finally completed his masterpiece, St Paul's Cathedral. Wren's magnificent classicizing structure replaced the original Elizabethan cathedral which had burnt down during the Great Fire of London of 1666. In this portrait Wren's achievement is alluded to by the pair of dividers which he holds, the copy of Euclid and the plan of the west end of the new St Paul's.

Related worksback to top

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 40
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Hart-Davis, Adam, Chain Reactions, 2000, p. 27
  • Ingamells, John, Later Stuart Portraits 1685-1714, 2009, p. 342
  • Ollard, Richard, Character Sketches: Samuel Pepys and His Circle, 2000, p. 41
  • Ollard, Richard, Pepys and his Contemporaries, 2015, p. 97
  • Rab MacGibbon, National Portrait Gallery: The Collection, p. 41
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 82
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 82 Read entry

    Wren became increasingly embittered towards the end of his career as he was supplanted by younger architects, who favoured a much freer and more inventive interpretation of the Classical precepts of architecture. Indeed, his style of architecture began to be regarded as outmoded, representative of the court of Charles II and inappropriate for a more democratic age. This sense of a grand old man, who had been a great figure throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century but who by 1711 was no longer so central to the architectural profession, is communicated by Kneller's rather stiff and perhaps deliberately old-fashioned portrait of him sitting erect with his compasses dangling over the plans for St Paul's.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 679
  • Simon, Jacob, The Art of the Picture Frame: Artists, Patrons and the Framing of Portraits in Britain, 1997 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 8 November 1996 - 9 February 1997), p. 59, 156 Read entry

    Carved and gilt pine, mitred and pinned lap joint with bevelled edge. 4 inches wide.

    The gadrooned frame on this portrait of Sir Christopher Wren, visible in old photographs, was removed from the picture, probably for storage during the First World War. It was subsequently swapped for a late seventeenth-century frame, then on L. F. Abbott's portrait of Admiral Viscount Hood but now on a Lely school portrait of William III (NPG 1902). It has recently been restored to the Wren portrait.

    Gadrooned frames of this reverse section, with twisting leaves and florettes on the back edge and an undercut gadrooned top edge, were commonly used from the late seventeenth century onwards. They are found on many of Kneller's portraits, including for example, his full-length portrait of the Earl of Oxford, 1714 (National Portrait Gallery), and that of the Earl of Londonderry, c.1720 (Chevening). The gadrooning of the Wren frame is on a particularly delicate scale.

  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 97 Read entry

    The great architect Christopher Wren first came to prominence as an astronomer and mathematician. He pioneered optics, making telescopic observations of the moon, and was the first Englishman to draw creatures with the aid of a microscope. His career changed dramatically with the Great Fire of London in 1666, after which he devoted himself to architecture. He was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral and dozens of the City churches destroyed by the fire. This vast project occupied Wren’s office for decades and enabled him to define his era to a degree unique in English architecture. A man of astounding talent and productivity, other major works include the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford (1669), Chelsea Hospital (1692), Trinity College Library, Cambridge (1695) and the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich (1712).

    This portrait of Wren celebrates the completion of his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral, in 1711. Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) presents the seventy-nine-year-old Wren in a flattering manner. He looks suitably proud of his achievement, which is alluded to by the pair of dividers in his hand, the copy of Euclid and a plan of the new cathedral.

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Events of 1711back to top

Current affairs

Queen Anne dismisses from office her closest companion, Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, over disagreements principally concerning matters of state. Sarah's husband, the Duke of Marlborough, is also dismissed, a victim of ambition and political intrigue.
The South Sea Company is launched to undertake the nation's debt.

Art and science

Composer, George Frideric Handel's first London opera Rinaldo is staged at the Queen's Theatre and privately performed for the queen on her birthday at St. James's Palace. The following year Handel would leave the Hanoverian court to settle in London.
Essayists, Sir Richard Steele and Joseph Addison establish The Spectator.


Secret peace negotiations between France and England resume to end the War of the Spanish Succession. Lord treasurer, Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford sends poet and diplomat, Matthew Prior, to France accompanied by Louis XIV's secret negotiator, François Gaultier, to conduct talks directly with the French king.

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