Wednesday, April 11, 2012

142: The Self-Empowered Woman: Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham

Dear Followers,

Decades ago. during the years when I worked as a journalist in London, I would pass by a very pretty church each day on my way to and from the newspaper office that practically became my home away from home. The picture on the right is a 19th century engraving of St. Bride's Fleet Street, one of 52 churches in London that has always been assumed to be designed by Sir Christopher Wren. St. Bride's is the second tallest of Wren's churches (only St. Paul's - where Prince Charles and Princess Diana were married - is taller), and it's multi-tiered spire is considered to have been the inspiration for the shape of traditional wedding cakes.

Please bear with me for a brief History lesson. Ready? The church was associated with the newspaper business because in 1550, a printing press was set up next door to the original church. Back then, London was the only British city in which printing was permitted by law. In 1666, the original church was completely destroyed during the Great Fire of London, and replaced by Wren's version in 1672 (the spire was added in the early 1700s). Sadly, the church was again gutted by German bombers in 1940. Newspaper owners and journalists paid to have the church rebuilt.

Now here's where the story REALLY becomes interesting. An English-educated American historian named John Millar has spent several decades researching the woman whom he feels mentored and inspired Sir Christopher Wren's work. This year, his book First Woman Architect will argue that Lady Elizabeth Wilbraham (1632-1705), who is pictured above, not only tutored Wren about classical building styles, but actually helped him design 18 of the 52 London churches that were commissioned to him after the Great Fire of London.

Wilbraham became interested in architecture as a teenager. After her marriage (at the age of 19), she persuaded her husband to take her on an extended honeymoon to the Netherlands and Italy so that she could study architecture. Even though it was an oddity for women of her status (and women were barred from studying architecture), she was able to study with Pieter Post in the Netherlands. And when at Veneto, she was able to purchase the 1663 Godfrey Richards edition of Palladio's I Quattro Libre, an architectural book that she annotated heavily through the years.

Today, some scholars believe that she was the brains behind 400 amazing buildings in England, the result of designing about eight projects per year. Because of gender restrictions, she hired men to supervise construction on the government buildings, churches and private homes that she designed. One of those homes, Wotton House in Buckinghamshire was purchased (for four million pounds) by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie.

Twenty-eight architectural drawings in Wilbraham's handwriting survive today, as do five architectural models made at her direction. Given the lack of tangible proof that a woman's creativity was at the root of England's Golden Age of Architecture, only her family and a handful of scholars can be expected to pay tribute to her lasting impact as the creator of the 17th century's sophisticated British style. Today, British women architects are still struggling for acceptance - only 19% of British architects are female.

Looking forward to your comments...

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