If You Seek His Monument

Celebrated author Charles Dickens stipulated that his legacy would be his books: yet a memorial was unveiled in Portsmouth in 2014 to celebrate his 202nd birthday.

© Sheilabythesea, 2014
© Sheilabythesea, 2014

He stated in his will that ‘I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever’. This has been interpreted in many different forms, from his own descendants claiming that he’d probably have been rather pleased with the statue to Dickens enthusiasts vehemently stating that no memorials should have been erected, in accordance to his wishes.

This reminded me of an oddity I happened upon a few years ago when I was stalking the streets of the City of London. I was examining the interior of St. Mary at Hill when I spotted a window memorial to a gentleman named Sir Christopher Wren. I screwed my face up in bemusement: it’s no secret that Wren intended his memorial to be the building which lies at the heart of the City: the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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Wren is one of the greatest men this Country has ever produced. A founding member of the Royal Society, keen astronomer and amateur architect, it was the latter that led to King Charles II appointing him and his colleague Robert Hooke (who has, until recently, been in Wren’s shadows in relation to his actual contributions to London and science) to rebuild the City after the devastating fire that destroyed most of it in 1666.

Charles II had a knack for placing the right people with a task they could do well and as the City still smouldered from a fire that could be seen from as far away as Oxford, he made the controversial move of appointing two Professors of Astronomy and Geometry respectively to rebuild one of the most significant Cities on the planet. Could you imagine the uproar that would happen if such an appointment was made today?

Wren’s plans for rebuilding the City would have drawn comparisons to Paris – boulevards, a grid-like street pattern – were admired but rejected by Charles, who wanted to get London on its feet as soon as possible. What he lost with this commission he gained in the rebuilding of the churches and of course, perhaps his greatest legacy, St. Paul’s, which he spent a great deal of his life working on. This was while he was designing other buildings,working as the Surveyor on Westminster Abbey, giving lectures and working as an (albeit, fairly rubbish) MP.

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St. Dunstan in the East, in the City. After a storm in the early 1700’s, sources informed Wren of the damage to the area. ‘Ah, but not the spire of St. Dunstans!’ he quipped, and he was right. Its unusual design is strong and iconic. © Martin Roberts, 2014

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A portrait of Wren after the completion of St.Paul’s hangs in the National Portrait Gallery painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller in 1711, where he’s shown sitting at a desk, an arm resting on the blueprints for his greatest work. It shows a man of determination and success, but what the portraits doesn’t show is that the descent of his career. Even those who tutored were no longer young and age was beginning to affect his output. He died in 1723 after catching a cold at the age of 91 and was buried in the vault below the dome.

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Famously, his tomb reads, with words written by his son: ‘if you seek his monument – look around you.’ Much like Dickens, Wren’s creative output was marked by the ability of his works to withstand the passage of time and be it books or churches – their memorials live on and carry the spirit of their work just as much as a statue or headstone would have done. And yet here, a stained glass window in a church he also designed commemorates him. An additional memorial like Dickens’ statue in the town he left aged three in 1815. What would Wren have thought?

All photography unless otherwise stated © Nick Richards Photography, 2014. 

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