Art Detective: Wren in Sussex

Sir Christopher Wren. Line engraving by E. Scriven 1809, after M. Rysbrack. Wellcome Library, London

2023 marked the 300th anniversary of the death of the polymath Sir Christopher Wren: astronomer, mathematician, physicist, anatomist and undoubtedly one of the country’s greatest architects.

Wren was given the responsibility of rebuilding 51 churches in the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, including, of course, St Paul’s Cathedral. Other notable works include Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, the Royal Naval College, and the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

But is there any truth to the attribution of Wren’s name to the design of several buildings in West Sussex? It has been claimed, for example, that he was behind the design of Edes House in Chichester (formerly known as Wren’s House), the spire of Cuckfield Church, and the stable building at Wakehurst.

Alas, such speculation seems fanciful. Wren’s pre-eminence as a Restoration artist is such that his name has been wrongly attributed to countless buildings of that period. Or, as his biographer Adrian Tinniswood has written: ‘If Wren was connected with a building, however remotely, it was slotted into the rapidly expanding canon’.

Edes House, in South Pallant, and now owned by West Sussex County Council, was long said to have been designed by the great architect. Thousands of tourists, erroneous guidebook in hand, must have stood in front of the building, marvelling at the great man’s work. It is indeed a splendid edifice – especially the front elevation – but the architect’s involvement with its design has been a matter of debate for over a century, and many scholars have searched in vain for any Wren connection. It is recorded that he was consulted on the repair of Chichester Cathedral’s storm-damaged spire in April 1684: perhaps that led to this particular flight of fancy.

And it must be admitted that Cuckfield Church does boast an uncommonly elegant octagonal spire that is similar in design to – for example – that of St Antholin’s Church in the City of London, which was certainly of Wren’s hand. But again, there is no record of Wren having any connection to the village, save a possible acquaintance with one of its more affluent parishioners, the lawyer Timothy Burrell. Not enough to go on, I’m afraid. Wren had enough on his plate in London, I’m sure, without concerning himself with the spire of a village church 50 miles away.

Finally, to the stables at Wakehurst. Again, this is indeed an elegant building, crowned by a splendid octagonal bellturret and cupola. The Grade II-listed structure is currently housing Wakehurst’s Stables Kitchen, and is a fine place to enjoy a latte and a chocolate muffin. But the attribution of Christopher Wren’s name to the building appears to have absolutely no foundation, and the National Trust are wise not to spread the myth in their literature about the property.

In this anniversary year, several London guides are advertising ‘Wrenathon’ tours around the great man’s buildings in the capital. Sadly, no such tour appears possible in Sussex. Though a triangular ‘Fine-Restoration-buildings-falselyattributed-to-Wrenathon’ tour, taking in Chichester, Cuckfield and Wakehurst, would be an edifying experience.