Wren 300 at Wadham

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24 Jun 2023
Wadham College, Oxford


On Saturday June 24th Wadham marks the 300th anniversary of the death Sir Christopher Wren, 1632-1723, Wadham’s most famous alumnus, with a symposium led by leading scholars, an exhibition of Wren material from the College library and a Wren-themed walking tour of Oxford. The events are part of the 2023 national ‘Wren 300’ programme assisted by Rory Coonan (English, 1973), an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and former director of architecture at the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Christopher Wren came up to Wadham in 1649/50 (the precise date is uncertain) during the English civil wars and following the execution of Charles I. His father was Dean of Windsor; the family was devoted to the Royalist cause. The young Christopher already enjoyed a reputation as a child prodigy in mathematics and geometry. At Wadham he was part of the group of ‘experimental philosophers’ encouraged by the Warden, John Wilkins (1614-72). Wilkins created an informal ‘Philosophical Club’ whose members were at the forefront of what came to be termed ‘science’. It offered a challenge to the ‘Schools’ of ancient learning. The group met in the Warden’s lodgings. Apart from Wren, it included Seth Ward, Thomas Willis, the Irish scientist Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke. The Club formed the nucleus of what became the Royal Society, of which Wren was second President.

Wren’s principal claims to fame rest on his unsurpassed achievements as Surveyor-General to six monarchs, as the architect of St Paul’s cathedral, the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the designer of 52 City churches and author of the masterplan to re-build London after the great fire of 1666. His most famous buildings remain today at the centre of national life and ceremonials. He taught himself architecture with the aid of books. However, even if Wren had never designed a single building, he would still enjoy a distinguished place in the history of physiology, meteorology, drawing, engineering, geometry, mathematics and astronomy. (Wren was appointed Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford at the age of 25.)

The Wren 300 Symposium at Wadham will explore the astonishing breadth of Wren’s interests and achievements before he took up architecture in his 30s. It will also examine his continuing influence on leading contemporary British architects.


The syposium will take place between 10am and 2pm on Saturday 24 June, and includes a short lunch break and exhibition. Full session timings will be confirmed in due course. For those remaining in Oxford on the morning of Sunday 25 June, we are delighted also to offer a guided walking tour: ‘The Oxford of Christopher Wren’.

Please contact development.team@wadham.ox.ac.uk if you would like to join the tour.

Known to millions as the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Christopher Wren’s early years were spent in Oxford where he arrived at Wadham College as a ‘gentleman commoner’ in 1649/50. This tour will start from Wadham and stroll past the Garden Quad at Trinity College, which was originally designed by Wren in the 1660s. In the same decade (and while working as the Savilian Professor of Astronomy), Wren was invited to submit designs for the impressive Sheldonian Theatre in Broad Street. After spending some time looking at the Sheldonian and walking past the gateway to All Souls in Radcliffe Square, we will move onwards to Christ Church and Wren’s Tom Tower, a key feature of the Oxford skyline. Over the course of 60 minutes, you will see Wren’s most important Oxford buildings, learn some Oxford secrets and find out more about the man described as ‘the greatest architect Britain has ever known’ and a ‘towering genius’.

Lizzy Rowe is an art historian who studied Classics at Oxford University before completing an MA in Classical and Byzantine Art at the Courtauld Institute in London. Initially an editor in book-publishing, she later worked at English Heritage as a guidebook editor. She currently lives in Oxford where she teaches Art History in primary schools and gives guided tours and talks.

She is a knowledgeable and enthusiastic speaker on a wide variety of art-related subjects. Her particular interest is in the exploring the art collections of the Oxford colleges, where many treasures can be found in chapels, dining halls and libraries.

Speaker biographies

We are delighted to confirm that the symposium will be moderated by Dr Jane Garnett, Fellow in History. She will be joined by the following speakers:

Katherine Blundell OBE

Katherine Blundell is a professor of astrophysics at Oxford University. She is also Gresham Professor of Astronomy, in direct line of succession to Wren himself in this post. She is a research fellow at St John’s College, Oxford. She was educated at Cambridge University. Her publications include Black Holes: A Very Short Introduction. She is a recipient of the Royal Society’s Rosalind Franklin Award.

Diana Darke (Arabic, 1974)

Diana Darke is an author and Middle East cultural specialist. After Wadham, she studied Islamic art and architecture at SOAS. Her publications include My House in Damascus: an inside view of the Syrian crisis (2016); Stealing from the Saracens: how Islamic architecture shaped Europe (2020) and The Ottomans: a cultural legacy (2022). She spent 35 years working in the Middle East for both government and commercial sectors. She is a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, an independent body in Washington DC, USA.

Eric Parry RA

Eric Parry is an internationally recognised British architect. Noteworthy projects include the 1993 extension of Pembroke College, Cambridge, Wren’s first architectural commission (1665). In 2008 Eric Parry led the restoration and renewal of St Martin in the Fields. His work has been exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale, the British School at Rome and the Royal Academy. Eric Parry was educated at the Royal College of Art and later taught architecture at Cambridge University (Peterhouse).

Tim Riley

Tim Riley is an art historian and Director and Chief Curator of the National Churchill Museum, designated by Congress, in Fulton, Missouri, USA. The Museum, at Westminster College, includes the reconstructed Wren Church of St Mary, Aldermanbury.

Matthew Walker (Ancient & Modern History, 2000)

Matthew Walker is co-editor of Wren’s correspondence (due to be published in 2023/24) and a Wadham alumnus. He joined Queen Mary, University of London, in 2018, having taught in the architecture school of the University of New Mexico and in the art history department at Oxford, where he held an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral fellowship. Wren is the last of the ‘Royal Society group’ to have their correspondence published.

Booking details

By invitation only to Wadham 1610 Society members and recent benefactors. A limited number of additional tickets will be available on a first come, first served basis. For booking enquiries, please email us at development.team@wadham.ox.ac.uk

Email invitations are due to be sent 24th April.

Guests: One per alumnus