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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Wren Library in Cambridge

What is the Wren Library?

The Wren Library is a Renaissance-style library completed in 1695 and named after its architect (access is from the Backs via Garrett Hostel Lane or Queen’s Road and the Avenue).

Wren library

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Wren Library History

Sir Christopher Wren was one of the greatest English architects in history, and the Wren Library is one of his finest works. It’s a late Renaissance masterpiece, built, as Wren wrote, ‘according to the manner of the ancients, who made double… walks about the forum’. This meant that it was designed like the humanist libraries in Italy, raised above ground level on rows of Tuscan columns.

Wren submitted two plans originally: the first, a circular building with a dome; and the second, a long rectangular structure. The latter design better suited the quadrangle of the court and balanced the Hall on the eastern side. Positioning the library on the first floor allowed the loggias on the north and south sides, designed by Thomas Nevile, to continue around the western end. Knowing the magnificence of this symmetrical and confident creation, Wren also designed the tribune on the west wall of the Hall: a platform from which you can see clearly the exterior decorations by sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber. The central arch on the ground floor depicts the translators of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) and along the roof are four female figures representing Theology, Law, Medicine, and Philosophy.

Ascending the stairs at the northern end, the interior of the library then reveals Wren’s late-17th-century rationalism at work. The room is awash with bright light cascading in from huge semi-circular windows. It’s one of the first libraries designed with readers in mind, for the windows, which match the height of an entire bookshelf, provide ample natural light to readers below. For Roger North, a contemporary biographer and critic, the library ‘touches the very soul of any one who first sees it’. Certainly, the bright long hall with black and white marble tiles and rows of oak bookshelves, is beautiful to behold.

The attention to detail makes the room even more impressive. The high columns along the wall and the panelled ceiling appear to enhance the height and length of the room. The reading desks and stools in each bay were also designed by Wren himself, including a revolving book rest in the tables’ centre. The bookcases and alcoves are decorated with sumptuous woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons. Made of lime wood, his carvings are lighter than the oak and cedar around them. Made from a variety of thin layers later nailed or glued together, they project out, appearing three-dimensional. They form a naturalistic cornucopia of foliage and fruit, animals and mythical creatures, that instil a sense of wonder: how can such detail and realism have been carved from wood?

To match Gibbons, are the marble statues by Louis-François Roubiliac. Considered the best sculptor of the time, ten of his busts sit in the library. By the mid-18th century, it was commonplace to decorate a library with ancient and modern thinkers as well as the individuals that furthered the institution. Inspecting each one in turn is a marvel. The stone appears soft and malleable, the figures look real and natural, and most of all, they are imbued with captivating emotion. Shining bright white, the busts, added to by other sculptors, sit atop and beside the bookshelves with inscriptions of the sitters, donors, and artists.

Set your own pace and explore the iconic sights with our self-guided audio tours of Cambridge.


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