WREN, Sir CHRISTOPHER (16321723, architect, mathematician, and astronomer)
AUTOGRAPH LETTERS BY WREN ARE VERY RARE; only two others have appeared at auction in the last thirty years and more. No letters by him have appeared with content comparable to the present letter and none containing advice on a private commission. Mostly, documents that do appear at auction are pages from the account books of Greenwich Hospital and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea signed by Wren.
i) ARCHITECTURE: '...I hope you provide to carry up one story at least of the great house next yeare it will be better worke to give it time to settle the stone & brick together...Your Green houses may have staircases without...with a Chimny for the roome above, but then you must have more Luthernes [lucarnes or dormer windows] because of the roome above...'
ii) PROSPECT: '...It is hard to give particular directions for the higthes of the walls on the Corner of the Garden next the church, but this I say in generall that they must not be higher then will give you the Libertie of a prospect towards Towster from the great Garden & also that the windowes of your parlor may looke over them. Let the workemen set up some small poles & tack a board levell upon them w[hi]ch you may set higher or lower till you are your selfe satisfied what highth the walls may be not to prejudice your prospect, & that highth you may continue along your Church Yard wall also...'
iii) BUILDING MATERIALS: '...Give me leave to advise you to one thing, You will never be satisfied with your floores unlesse you provide your boardes early; this is the cheapest time of the yeare, you may deale with a Marchant heer to deliver your boardes at Wisbich from whence you may have them brought to St. Ives w[hi]ch I take to be your safiest way. 400ll [i.e. £400] well layd out will furnish you, & out of such a stock you may pick out good boardes for your best roomes & the rest will be used for the Garrets, & your rommes over the Kitchin, for the boardes that are there are only for your pigsties. I am the more earnest in this because though you may fit your selfe with all other materialls at hand, yet thiss [i.e. these] materialls can be noe otherwise supplied. by that time you have Earth enough in your great Garden I will if I can set it out...'
Easton Neston, one of England's finest country houses, is considered to be the first masterpiece of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736), pupil and assistant of Sir Christopher Wren. It is the only mansion which is thought to have been solely the work of Hawksmoor, the fabric being formally dated 1702.
However, lack of evidence makes it difficult to be entirely clear of the attribution of all the works and of their chronology. It is said that Sir William Fermor (1648-1711) engaged Wren, who was his cousin by his first marriage [first cousin of the second Lady Wren and godfather to her son William in 1679], to build him a house at Easton Neston in the 1680s, perhaps at the time of Fermor's second marriage in 1682 to Catherine, daughter of Lord Poulet (she died in 1687).
That scheme was apparently put on hold (perhaps because of the death of Fermor's second wife), after the construction in brick of two service wings to the north and south of the proposed main block, only the north one of which now survives. Building plans were revived when Fermor married his third wife, the wealthy Sophia daughter of the Duke of Leeds, in 1692, and he was also raised to the peerage as first Baron Leominster. Wren is supposed to have recommended Hawksmoor for the whole project at this time.
The project to which this letter relates was clearly in its very early stages: the ground floor of the main house might be started the following year [the foundations perhaps already laid], the garden walls were not as yet built, the prospect not entirely decided, the green houses not erected or the nature of them determined, the floor timbers not ordered and the earth for the 'Great Garden' not yet delivered. He also makes it clear that he will set out the 'great Garden' if he can.
The content and tone of the present letter all suggest that Wren was giving the sort of advice that a professional would proffer pretty much as a disinterested party, not one fully engaged on or leading a project, though what he says about the prospect would seem to indicate that he was acquainted with the site (Kerry Downes considers that the 'remark about boards only for pigsties may or may not indicate that Wren had visited the site'). He also envisaged some role in setting out the garden. The form of address of the letter 'Sr William Farmor Kt. & Baronet' makes it certain that Wren's letter pre-dates Fermor's elevation to the peerage as Lord Leominster in 1692. In the light of all this, it is almost certain that Wren's advice related to the earlier of the two projects [1680s, not 1690s].
The factors outlined above and the existence of a drawing by Wren which is accepted as relating to Easton Neston (All Souls MS) and the near-contemporary reference by John Lumley of the association of Wren with the house (in 1708 he attributes the staircase to Wren and Hawksmoor), coupled with the general paucity of evidence, might be seen to argue a greater input by Wren in the first, the 1680s, project than Downes allows, though he himself concluded: 'We may regard as certainties that both Wren and Hawksmoor were concerned with the house and garden around 1686 [and] that Hawksmoor designed the main house [dated 1702] and probably neither designed the wings.'
Downes quotes an entry, found by Howard Colvin, from the notebook of James and John Grove, carpenters, that can be dated to 1686 and relates to the content of the present letter: 'at Sr Wm Farmers at Easton nr Towster' for 'Luthern' windows with caps and pediments, clearstory windows, four- and six-light windows, eaves boards, flooring, ceiling joists, partitions, tables and tressles, centering for chimneys, for inside brick and outside arches', and 'roofing & boarding of the Great Pediments.'
It was possibly in one of the green houses mentioned in this letter that Horace Walpole saw in 1736 some of the famous Arundel Marbles that Sir William Fermor acquired in 1691: 'in an old green-house is a wonderful fine statue of Tully, haranguing a numerous assembly of decayed emperors, vestal virgins with new noses, Colossus's, Venus's, headless carcases, and carcaseless heads, pieces of tombs, and hieroglyphics.'
This letter remained in the family until 2008. The provenance is: Sir William Fermor, 2nd Bart, 1st Baron Leominster (c. 1647-1711); Thomas Fermor (1698-1753), 2nd Lord Leominster and 1st Earl of Pomfret who left the possessions at Easton Neston to Lady Charlotte Fermor and her sister, the siblings of the 3rd Earl of Pomfret (a rake and spendthrift); she married Peter Denys (1786-1830), of Hans Place, London, and Fremington, Yorkshire; thence by descent to Sir Francis Denys of Draycott Hall, Richmond, Yorkshire, who presented the letter to Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh in 1899 (see label: 'This Letter from Sir Christopher Wren was found among some Family Letters at Draycott Hall, Richmond Yorkshire & was presented to Sir Thomas Fermor-Hesketh by Sir Francis Denys Feb[ruar]y 1899'); and thence by descent to The Trustees of Frederick, 2nd Baron Hesketh, who sold the letter in December 2008.
See: Kerry Downes, 'Hawksmoor's house at Easton Neston', Architectural History, 30 (1987), pp. 50-76; Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole to George Montagu Esq., second edition, 1819.