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The Phoenix: St Paul's Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London.

The Phoenix

St Paul's Cathedral and the Men Who Made Modern London

Leo Hollis

Weidenfeld & Nicolson 390pp 20 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 0 297 85077 9


The life and work of Christopher Wren have been described many times, most recently in Building St Paul's by James W. P. Campbell, a brief but fascinating study of Wren's relationship with his artisans. They form the thread that binds together Leo Hollis's first book, too, but The Phoenix goes beyond Wren. Hollis weaves together the stories of Wren and four contemporaries who each had a strong influence on the rebirth of London in the decades after the Great Fire of 1666.

Three are almost as well known as Wren. Robert Hooke, polymath of the Royal Society, was the closest to Wren. They did experiments together as young men at Oxford in the 1650s, were founder members of the Royal Society in 1662, and collaborated intimately in the surveying and reconstruction of the City of London and the design of the dome of St Paul's. John Evelyn, diarist and horticulturist, was also a longstanding companion of Wren. In 1696--when St Paul's was still far from complete--Evelyn published the achievement in his book on architecture as follows: 'Out of the ashes this Phoenix is risen and by Providence Design'd by you.' John Locke, philosopher and economic thinker, though not part of Wren's circle, was friendly with Hooke and Evelyn and like all three men a convinced believer in reason and science.

The last of Hollis's group is the odd man out and less well known. Nicholas Barbon was a financial speculator and property developer who pushed forward the expansion of Lon don--especially the suburbs of Soho, Spitalfields and Holborn--with rows of terraced housing between 1666 and his death in 1698. Generally credited with the founding of fire insurance, he was an early proponent of the free market and paper money, which brought him into conflict with Locke. Son of the Puritan preacher Praise-God Barbon (from whom the 1653 Barebones Parliament derived its nickname), Nicholas was baptized If-Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Be-Damned Barbon. But his business ethics were anything but Christian. It is fitting that for all his cunning and ruthlessness as a builder, Barbon has no monument and only a cul-de-sac named after him.

Evelyn's claim to be a maker of modern London does not seem particularly strong, at least as compared with Pepys'. That said, The Phoenix is a skilful and enjoyable mix of biography and history, in which the lives of the protagonists neither dominate nor disappear in the earth-shaking political events of the age: the Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution. Both Wren and Hooke as youths were so traumatized by their families' support for the royalist cause that neither would speak of their childhoods. Locke came close to being hanged for treason under James II.

The tangled politics of building St Paul's under four monarchs, and its effect on the aesthetics of Wren's design, are especially well handled. Having arduously obtained the royal warrant in 1675, Wren noted that he would stop making the models and drawings which had hitherto 'subjected his Business many times to incompetent Judges'. Hollis comments: 'This may have been a moment's exasperation ... but more likely it was a cover for a most extraordinary act of legerdemain.' For, having got his way officially, Wren went on to alter the design as construction proceeded; the approved Warrant Design differs crucially from the completed cathedral, which has a totally different dome.

Political and religious history and biography are the book's forte; less so the history of science. To describe Newton's corpuscular theory of light--as opposed to the wave theory of Hooke and Huygens--simply as 'correct', is insufficient. Even Newton was not certain he was correct, and his theory was overturned by the wave theory a century after Newton decided to publish his Opticks, on the death of his old enemy Hooke in 1703. Moreover the explanation of Hooke's theory of gravitational force and distance--another major controversy with Newton--confuses an inverse with an inverse-square relationship. But perhaps these slips are not of great moment in a history of London, its buildings and the beginnings of the Enlightenment.
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Author:Robinson, Andrew
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2008
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