Building the Wren Library

In an earlier blog we learned how, by the seventeenth century, the existing library at Trinity was proving inadequate. The ambition to build a new library is popularly ascribed to Isaac Barrow, Master of Trinity from 1673 until his death in 1677. Barrow secured the services of his friend, architect Christopher Wren, for no charge. Wren had recently designed the college chapels of Pembroke and Emmanuel College and he submitted plans for a new library at Trinity. The vision was for a library which would depart from the gothic style of those at other Cambridge colleges such as St John’s and Trinity Hall. The grandeur of Trinity’s new building would enhance both the college and the University.

Wren submitted two classical designs: one a circular, domed building and the other a long, rectangular one. The latter design was chosen and, although there were concerns about the potential expense, Barrow launched a public appeal in 1676:

“… We the Master and fellows of the said College have entertained a design of Erecting a new Library in a place very convenient for use, and for the grace of the College, intending to inlarge the New Court, called Nevil’s Court; and by adjoining the Library to make it up a fair Quadrangle: The accomplishment of which design, beside the advantages from it to this Society, will as we conceive, yield much Ornament to the University, and some honour to the Nation …”

The notice made an appeal for ‘a free Contribution of Money, according to the Abilities of each one … to Generous Persons, Favourers of Learning, and Friends to the Universities, especially to those, who have had any part of their Education in this College …’ and was sent out along with an engraving of the plans proposed by Wren. The appeal was a success and money began to come in: £100 from James Duport, former Vice- Master and Dean of Peterborough (who also founded the new cathedral library at Peterborough in 1672), £100 from Barrow himself, £40 from Isaac Newton and £5 from the college barber to name a few. Over the 20 years it took to build the library, the college raised over £11,000 in gifts towards the final total of £16, 425.

Engraving by David Loggan of Wren’s proposed design for the Library which was distributed with the original appeal. Copyright: All Souls’ College Oxford

The rectangular design of the library building was conceived to balance the already-existing Great Hall on the opposite side of the court.  The north and south sides of Nevile’s Court were extended by an additional eight arches in order to close off the quadrangle. The library would be housed at first-floor level resting on ground-floor arches which provided a covered way to link the two existing cloisters. Access was planned at both ends of the building, but in the end only a staircase within a domed pavilion at the north end was built. Wren’s original designs can be viewed online here.

The building work was overseen by a group of 15 fellows who appointed a master-mason, Robert Grumbold, himself in charge of around 30 masons. Work began in 1676 with the demolition of a tennis court which stood between the proposed site of the library and the river. In 1970, excavation revealed that inverted brick arches were used in the foundations of the arcade supporting the library. Close to the river, these served to distribute the load evenly instead of concentrating it beneath a series of piers which might be liable to subsidence. These arches were built on top of clunch, a hard chalk brought in the main from quarries at nearby Cherry Hinton. The inner face of the structural walls were of brick which was then faced on the exterior with Ketton stone from the Ketton quarry near Stamford. The walls of the building took over four years to build.

Loggan’s engraving of Nevile’s Court in the late 17th century provides a view of the new library from the tribune designed by Wren for the west wall of the Great Hall. From here you could look directly across the grass plots to the central arch of the library where a relief carving in the central tympanum by Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630–1700) depicts the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) presenting their work to Ptolemy. On the roof, four female figures (also by Cibber) represent theology, law, medicine and philosophy. With the completion of the roof in 1681, the fitting of the interior – also to Wren’s design – could begin.

Loggan’s engraving of Nevile’s court from Cantabrigia Illustrata (1690)

Further Reading:

McKitterick, D. (ed), The Making of the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1995)