The Interior of the Wren Library

Our next few blog posts will focus on aspects of the interior decoration of the Wren Library.

Christopher Wren’s decorative design was not followed for the original ceiling of the library which instead was unadorned. The intention may have been to add painted decoration but it was not until 1850 that the more ornamental ceiling you see today was installed following Wren’s original design.

Above the grand staircase at the entrance, however, an elaborate plastered ceiling was created at the time of the original building. It has a central garlanded oval and four panels in which scrolls of foliage wind around the arms of the four successive Masters in post when the Library was being planned and built: John Pearson, Isaac Barrow, John North and John Montagu.

The ceiling above the grand staircase

The grand staircase leading up to the library is made of black marble and in the library proper, the black and white marble tiles are laid in a diagonal pattern.

Much of the internal woodwork of the library was made by the Cambridge joiner Cornelius Austin in close consultation with Wren’s office in London. The east and west walls were lined with oak book shelves up to the window sills. Other bookshelves or ‘book-presses’ projected out into the room forming a series of three-sided, book-lined spaces called ‘celles’ by Wren but now referred to as ‘bays’. In total there are 15 bays on each side with two at both ends also featuring openwork carved doors to create a secure space. Each bay has a raised wooden floor.

Above the bays the walls are decorated with pilasters (rectangular columns projecting from the wall) and large windows allow natural light into the room. The pilasters were included by Wren to complement his original design for the paneled ceiling and together these design features – the pilasters and the ceiling – were intended to enhance the perspective of the long room.

A Wren Bay containing furniture designed by Sir Christopher Wren

AS I.49. Design for a reading-desk and stool © The Warden and Fellows of All Souls College, Oxford. All rights reserved.

Each open bay provides space for private study and contains four-person reading desks and stools designed by Wren. The reading desk features a removable, revolving book rest which is placed in the centre of the square table. This furniture remains in the library to this day.


At the end of the projecting bookcases are hinged panels with catches which open to reveal the original book list for the books shelved within the adjacent bay.

An original book list revealed behind an opening panel

Future blogs will describe the carving by Grinling Gibbons, the sculpture and the window designed by Giovanni Battista Cipriani.

Interior of the Wren Library


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