DIRECTION – south down Walbrook to Cannon Street, east along Cannon Street to Abchurch Lane – 3.5 minute walk
DIRECTION – south down Walbrook to Cannon Street, east along Cannon Street to Abchurch Lane – 3.5 minute walk
DIRECTION – west along Cannon Street to Bow Lane, then north – 8 minute walk.
DIRECTION – east along Cheapside – Poultry – south-east along King William Street – Monument Street and left (north) along Lovat Lane to entrance. (Church ‘fronts’ on to St Mary at Hill) – 12 minute walk
Your final destination.
The City of London’s ‘renewal and recovery’ after the Great Fire of 1666 was regarded at the time as miraculous – especially from the point of view of speed of reconstruction and the quality of what was achieved.
As John Strype observed in his 1720 edition of the Survey of London the city was:
‘re-builded in that Magnificent, Substantial and Beautiful Manner, as now is; With its Cathedral and Parochial Churches, Gates, Halls, Publick Edifices etc…’
Strype was particularly impressed by the ‘street levellings and widenings’ – although it is now accepted that one of the main characteristics of the rebuilding was that the existing street pattern – in part dating back to the King Alfred’s late 9th century reoccupation of the long abandoned Roman city – was generally respected.
This was the case despite a series of visionary and ‘ideal’ plans drawn up immediately after the fire – by such as Sir Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Richard Newcourt.
The newly restored Stuart court had neither the money nor the power to impose a radical new plan in the face of merchants desperate to rebuild and get back to business as quickly as possible.
And speed of construction was indeed impressive.
Strype states that much of the city – notably houses, warehouses and counting houses – were rebuilt with four or five years,
But we know this was not the case with churches – in some instances work did not start until the 1670s or 16 80s with towers and spites often completed far later.
And of course St Paul’s Cathedral was not declared officially complete until December 1711.
One reason for the speed was standardisation of design and construction – the 1667 Building Act sought to impose brick and stone construction and to relate heights of building to the widths of thoroughfares on which they stood – and in the process determined ‘four types of houses.’
The intention was to make the new city more fire resistant – but the act also introduced greater uniformity of design and construction, and greater simplicity.
Speed of construction was also achieved through ‘state aid’. The Government provided funding for public buildings such as churches through a tax, levied from 1670, on coal coming into London – and since coal was essential for heating houses and cooking food – the revenue was substantial.
Coal tax money was used to build the basic fabric of churches, with the individual parishes being left to pay for interior fixtures and ornament.
The cause of the cause of the Great Fire was hotly debated.
Strype lists a few, including:
‘It was Saturday Night, when many of the most eminent Citizens, Merchants, and others were retired into the Country, and none but servants left to look to their City Houses.’
SO weekending to blame!
‘It was in the long Vacation – being that particular time of the Year, when many wealthy Citizens and Tradesmen are wont to be in the Country at Fairs…’
‘The closeness of the buildings, and narrowness of the streets…did much facilitate the Progress of the Fire; by hindering of the Engines to be brought to play upon the Houses on Fire.’
‘The Matter of which the Houses (where the fire started) were; viz. Timber, and those very old.’
‘The Nature of the wares and Commodities stowed and vended in those parts (where the fire started) were the most combustible of any other sold in the whole City: As Oyl, Pitch, Tar, Cordage, Hemp, Flax, Rosin, Wax, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Brandy, Sugar etc,’
‘The unexpected failing of the water; For the Engine at the North End of London Bridge, called the Thames Water Tower, (which supplied all that Part of the City with Thames water) was out of Order, and in a few Hours was itself burnt down, so that the water pipes, which conveyed the Water from thence through the Streets, were soon empty.’
Strype also added, in sinister manner,
‘To all which Reasons must not be past over the general Suspicion, that most then had, of Incendiaries laying combustible Stuff in many Places, having observed divers distant Houses to be on Fire together. And many were then taken up upon Suspicion.’
This view was long held.
The Monument, built 1671 to 1677 to the design of Wren and Robert Hooke originally carried a text that referred to the ‘burning of this Protestant city, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction.’
There was no evidence found to support this and the words were eventually chiselled away in the 1830s.
There were even claims, put around by disgruntled Puritans, that the burning of the city had been foretold in the Book of Revelation, where the mark of the beast is 666, and was punishment for the sensual excesses of the Stuart court.
But whatever the cause of the fire the city’s speedy and handsome renewal – indeed resurrection – was seen as evidence of Divine benevolence and a very direct expression of God’s will
This was particularly the case with the churches and St Pauls.
London was a sacred city – like Jerusalem – that by myth and tradition (as explained by John Stow in his 1598 Survey of London) founded by Brutus, the grandson of Aeneas, and originally known as the New Troy, with Britain named after its founder.
Before the 1666 fire the city had, within its wall, 97 churches. A few survived in the north and east – notably St Helens Bishopsgate – but 51 were built, or substantially rebuilt after the fire – virtually all to designs by Sir Christopher Wren and his team.
Wren was a man of science and an amateur architect but by 1669 had been appointed Surveyor to the King’s Works. He, and his team, were doing God’s work – and they were the driving force behind the vision to rebuild London as a divine ‘City beautiful’, pursuing trade in a profitable and honest manner in the face of competition from the continent.
London, with its great cathedral and array of churches – with towers and spires rising to the heavens – was to be the Protestant riposte to Paris and to Rome itself.
Wren’s churches are all different, partly – or largely – because the conditions in which each was built were different.
In some cases Wren had to work with ancient sites of varied shapes, often with large parts of the old churches surviving – and money was an issue.
So mostly old sites were simply reused and sound old fabric incorporated
But, despite these characteristics and limitations, three basic models emerged – all inspired by history and by the classical traditions that had – ironically – been refined in early 17th century counter-Reformation Rome, where Baroque classicism flourished to become an internationally admired style. Another inspiration were the churches of the Low Countries – notably in Amsterdam – where the classical tradition had been developed and adapted to reflect Protestant practice.
The three models were:
The basilica plan – derived ultimately from Roman public buildings but also a plan that had become traditional for English Medieval churches. Essentially a Latin cross, incorporating a nave flanked by aisles.
On occasions in Wren’s basilica churches transepts were implied, along with a chancel and altar at the east end and, ideally and if possible, a tower at the west end.
The centralised plan – this was a favoured and fashionable plan type at the time and regarded as particularly classical and correctly antiquarian in character – usually with a symmetrical Greek cross plan with barrel vaulted arms, incorporating columns, meeting and crossing at a central space topped with a groin vault or a dome.
Wren had tried a Greek cross design in 1671/2 for St. Paul’s, but clerics objected. They wanted a traditional Latin cross-plan cathedral with a long nave. In 1673 Wren amended the design to produce the ‘Great Model’ design with a longer west arm forming a nave- but proposal still not accepted.
Wren realised that in the city centralised churches could not in fact be truly and literally centralised and symmetrical – they could appear to be centralised but for liturgical reasons needed a longer west arm to function as a nave.
Third was the direct application of specific antique and exemplary prototypes, as was the case with St. Mary-le-Bow.
Another great challenge for Wren was to adapt the essentially Roman Catholic Baroque classical architectural language for Protestant use. He did this in several ways – for example making the focus of the interior the pulpit – from where the word of God was delivered in ‘rational’ manner – rather than the altar where Roman Catholics celebrated the mysteries of their faith. As Wren explained when describing his church of St. James Piccadilly (completed 1684), for the
‘Romanists …. it is enough if they hear the Murmer of the Mass, and see the Elevation of the Host, but (Protestant churches) are to be fitted for Auditories’ in which congregations can ‘both … hear distinctly and see the Preacher’ (‘Upon the Building of National Churches’, Christopher Wren and Stephen Wren, Parentalia, 1750, pp. 318-21).
Wren also simplified his architecture, as far as was possible within the conventions of the Baroque, which is characterised by movement, by spatial tricks, theatrically and richness of ornament. Primarily he favoured large windows with plain glass to allow God’s light to flood in, and simple interior schemes dominated by pale stone colours and white paint. Even the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was largely clad with Portland stone, was originally coated with while oil paint, much in the manner of contemporary Dutch ecclesiastical interiors.
The interior of the church is defined by space and light, by intersecting volumes – with flat and curved surfaces, pale and pure of colour, off-set by dashes of rich and most significant detail.
Walking through the church is like moving through a three-dimensional work of almost abstract sculpture.
It is the epitome of sacred space achieved through geometry, proportion and precise and just form.
James Ralph, generally a stern critic of English Baroque architects and architecture, conceded in his 1734 Critical Review of London’s public buildings that St. Stephen’s
‘is famous all over Europe . . . Italy itself can produce no modern building that can vie with this in taste or proportion.’
In 1758, John Wesley, a man better known for his interest in the world of the spirit than the world of architecture, observed in his diary that the ‘little church … is … neat and elegant beyond expression’
The church’s exterior is rough-hewn (largely because most of it was hidden behind buildings) apart from its carefully considered entrance arch that opens onto a vestibule within which is located a flight of stairs that carries the visitor above the bustle of the street and the world of man to the higher level of the church. The steps are a preparation for what is to come, a warning to free yourself from worldly affairs and open your mind to the messages carried in the architecture.
The interior that confronts you is fascinating to contemplate, not only as piece of sculpture – almost abstract although in its design strangely emotive – but also because it is like a finely tuned and precise piece of machinery, one in which strictly modulated light plays upon strictly modulated forms.
This is one of Wren’s centralised and domed churches – indeed the very best of the type – and here planes, implied cubes, cylinders and a semi-spherical dome relate to each other in most elegant and logical manner to create a sense of order and beauty in which all elements are in finely balanced visual harmony. St Stephen’s was built between 1672 and 1679, at the same time as Wren was working on St Paul’s as well as numerous other city churches. Wren was at the peak of his powers, and St. Stephen’s is the ultimate expression of his notion of geometrically generated ‘natural’ or absolute beauty.
The interior is dominated visually by an array of freestanding Corinthian columns set on pedestals that, as you navigate around and through them, offer a never ending array of fascinating perspectives and vignettes of the interior – always different depending on the condition of the light. It really is a living building.
The columns and sense of light and space creates the first impression this is a hall-church, offering a sort of democratic space, without hierarchy of nave and lower aisles, popular at the time in the Calvinistic Low Countries. But all, in fact, is far more ambiguous.
Two groups of three columns – each group L-shaped in plan – stand at the east end of the church, and two groups of five columns stand at the west end of the church. These sixteen columns define the interior space. The groups frame a main east-west axis and a north south cross-axis – so imply a cruciform plan – with a dome placed above the point where the axes cross. The additional columns at the west end of the church’s oblong plan imply the presence of a nave, which gives this seemingly centralised church a stunted Latin cross plan in the manner of more traditional churches. The setting of columns just in from the outer walls of the church also imply aisles.
The dome evidently gave Wren much to ponder. He viewed it as an opportunity to experiment with an approach that he intended to apply – at far larger and much more demanding scale – at St Paul’s. At St Stephens the columns support eight semi-circular arches of matching size, which in turn support a circular Doric cornice, from which rises the dome.
The placing of a dome over a cubical base is a time-honoured form for tombs and sacred buildings in the ancient world as well as in Islam and Christianity, with well-established symbolism: the cube or square represents the material world (the four seasons, the four elements), while the circle or dome, a geometrical form with no beginning and no end, represents the immaterial world to which the soul ascends. Over the years a number of different approaches to this type of dome had been attempted: in Byzantine buildings, for example, the combination of a dome carried partly on columns and placed over a square-plan cubic space is called a quincunx. The dome was also on occasion carried on four wide arches, spanning between four piers – as in the sixth century AD Hagia Sophia in Istanbul).
But Wren wanted eight arches at St Stephens’s and subsequently at St Paul’s. Why? There are numerous possible reasons. At a basic level a system of eight arches is easier to build and easier to stabilise: smaller arches each exert a more modest horizontal thrust, and so reduce the need for thick outer walls or external buttresses. Such massive structures could have denied Wren the lightness of touch – almost weightless – that he evidently wanted to achieve to give this church an ethereal quality and spatial ambiguity.
So the decision could have been a structural and aesthetic one. But in other ways, the eight arch system is less visually and structurally logical than the four arch system. Four arches reflect the four primary routes into the space beneath the dome – the main axis and the cross axis – but the eight arch system means that four arches span nothing of significance (Wren tried to capitalise on these seeming nonessential arches by arranging large high level windows behind them so, during daylight, the arches appear to frame large lanterns). Perhaps there was a more practical reason: Wren’s aim was to see if the eight-arch system could be made to work visually before applying it to St Paul’s.
What we do know is that Wren undertook a vast amount of research before and during the design of St Stephen’s. The sources for this research were limited. Like most people of his generation Wren travelled little – it was too expensive, too time consuming and too dangerous to travel just for leisure or pleasure. For most people of means one Grand Tour – usually to Italy – was generally the limit. But Wren did not even manage this. All he could organise was one brief journey to Paris in 1665, just after he had commenced his architectural career in earnest. He had to make do with reading – the Bible for information about emblematic and inspiration structures such as Solomon’s Temple, built by man but designed by God, and architectural tomes to familiarise himself with the works of great Renaissance architects such as Alberti and Palladio, who presented not only their own or contemporary designs but also detailed information about seminal ancient buildings.
Wren also spoke to many travellers, with meetings often arranged through his Royal Society connections, and he would have seen many sketches of ancient sites and ancient structures. He was influenced by the Paris-born Huguenot jewel merchant, traveller, diplomat, artist and antiquarian Jean Chardin, who settled in London in 1681: Chardin had first gone to Istanbul and Persia in 1666 and from the 1680s started to publish the journals of his travels in the Middle East, which were to become a prime and authoritative source of information about life in the Ottoman and Persian empires. Wren knew Chardin and on several occasion met him with John Evelyn to discuss ancient architecture and ruins, including Persepolis.
From the records of Wren’s meetings with various travellers and architects, we know that he had a fascination with the architecture of the Ottoman empire, especially the Hagia Sophia. He would have become familiar with the great domed structures created in the mid sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by Ottoman architects, such as Mimar Sinan. Particularly inspiration for Wren are surely Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosque complex of 1550 to 1557, with its prayer hall caped by a gigantic dome supported on four arches, and the b of 1568 to 1575, with its prayer hall roofed with a huge dome supported on eight arches rising from eight columns. Wren himself acknowledges this Ottoman influence in his writings. In his second Tract on Architecture, written in the 1680s, he said that for the vaulting of St Paul’s he ‘followed’ techniques used at Hagia Sophia and which is ‘yet found in the present Seraglio’– a reference to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, built in the late fifteenth and late sixteenth centuries as a series of rooms – many vaulted – around courtyards. (See for example Lisa Jardine, On a Grander Scale: the outstanding career of Sir Christopher Wren, 2002, HarperCollins) When wrestling with the problems of designing the dome of St Paul’s Wren would no doubt have been intrigued to draw on the solutions devised by Sinan and his peers.
Wren would also have taken inspiration from closer to home. The key comparison to the design of St Paul’s was the massive dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, designed in the mid sixteenth century by Michelangelo, also supported primarily on four large arches springing between four massive piers: Wren knew that at the very least his dome had to be as dominant and beautiful as that of the Vatican, so the Protestant faith would not appear eclipsed. And he would also no doubt have taken inspiration from the dome added from1680 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart to Les Invalides in Paris. This consists of three shells, two of which are visible internally because the lower is furnished with a wide oculus through which part of the frescoed surface of the middle dome can be glimpsed. It was almost certainly the key influence for Wren’s spectacular three-skinned dome at St. Paul’s where the outer dome achieves an ideal hemispherical form by rising on a strong, but far from beautiful, cone-shaped middle dome made of brick and stone laced with wrought iron. This in turn is masked from below by the third dome, designed to look beautiful from within the cathedrals.
By incorporating a dome as the central feature of his designs, Wren was placing both St Stephen’s and St Paul’s within an ancient and holy architectural tradition. One can trace a direct link between the dome designs of the Renaissance and medieval round churches, which usually feature a central lantern, if not a dome, supported on rings of six or eight shafts or columns. These round churches were inspired by the prototype of Christian round and domed churches with central circular arcades or colonnades – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, dating from the mid fourth century but repaired and extended into the mid twelfth century. By tradition this was the primary church in Christendom because it was believed to mark the sites of Christ’s crucifixion and entombment. And this round form was in turn probably inspired by the ‘Second’ Temple in Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Solomon’s initial Temple was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar II in around 600BC. According to Biblical texts (Ezra 6: 3-5) this ‘Second’ Temple – like the first supposedly Divine in inspiration – was cubical or cylindrical in shape. So, in simple terms, all round Christian churches – including Wren’s St. Stephen’s –are in a sense evocations of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
Before you leave St. Stephen’s study the details. Most are not without a meaning related to the broad intentions of the building as a whole, although many might now be difficult to decode. Here, two examples will suffice. First, look for the cherubs with outstretched wings placed at the top or bottom of a number of the capitals, as well as dancing around the domed sounding-board above the pulpit. Cherubs were one of the most popular details in late seventeenth century British architecture and interior design. But to men of Wren’s stamp Cherubs and the angelic choir including Seraphim were far more than just pleasing motifs.
They carried a very particular message. In Solomon’s Temple, the Ark of the Covenant – which contained the Tablets of the Law given to Moses by God was, according to the Bible, guarded by six-winged Seraphim, a higher order of angels than cherubs: Isaiah describes a vision of ‘the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up . . . above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”( Isaiah 6:1–3)
Cherubs or Seraphim being used to evoke associations with Solomon’s Temple were common enough in late 17th century British architecture. In St. Stephen’s the cherub keystones are probably meant to represent the angelic beings guarding the Ark in the temple’s Holy of Holies, here represented by the area below St Stephen’s heavenly dome.
To Wren, this central area was of equal importance to the handsome – but relatively small – altar at the church’s east end. Its openness suggests that it was the place of the immaterial, a place dominated by light and by the word of God. The New Testament makes much of the holiness of light, particularly in John’s Gospel, where light and Christian virtue are synonymous: ‘the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not’ (John 1:5), and
‘while ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.’ (John 12:36).
The importance of the word of God is made clear by Wren himself, not least by the fact that the pulpit here – large, centrally placed and, with its large sounding board, well designed to project the word.
Much of the original atmosphere of St Stephen’s has been lost in recent years. The centre of the open space now contains a large altar, which was added in 1978. To place an altar in this place of light and of the immaterial and invisible presence of God is a most strange thing to have done and suggests that the probable meaning of Wren’s design was not appreciated. It does not matter whether one likes or dislikes Henry Moore’s large and amorphous altar stone: the point is that no material object, beautiful, ugly, sacred or otherwise, should stand in this space.
The exterior of this church is handsome and designed and built in the manner Wren had evolved for more economic projects. The exterior is not clad in stone by faced in well-wrought brick with details -notably corner quoins and doorsurrounds – picked out in Portland stone. Wren had perfected this language in earlier projects and city churches – such as the Royal Observatory in Greenwich of the mid 1670s; St Benet, Paul’s Wharf (started 1677) and St. Mary-le-Bow. The styles origin in English architecture seems to lie in late Elizabethan and Jacobean architecture, such as Hatfield House, Hertfordshire of 1611. Although a budget approach, if well handled the technique could be most handsome, heroic and almost Roman in feel.
The church is more or less freestanding – but set in most constrained space. Cherubs make an appearance – observe the one above the main door and the charming example on a door to the west, with a array of cherubs rising on the tower elevation above it, forming as it were a pathway to heaven.
Also observe the tower and spire – the city churches collection makes a delightful study in its own right. The broad aim was to achieve a medieval Gothic building type and silhouette – the aspiring tower and spite – but using the classical language, including miniature round, polygonal or square-plan columned temples and obelisks.
This example is charming and elemental- a lead covered ogee square-plan ‘dome’ supporting an arcaded lantern upon which rises a dramatically tapering obelisk. Who designed? Wren? Hooke? Wren’s daughter Jane, but she was probably too young?
The virtually square site that Wren inherited for this church gave him an excellent opportunity to once again explore the dome – this time with an extraordinary single mindedness.
As Nikolaus Pevsner observes, entering the church is a ‘surprise’ – there are no naves, aisles, columns and entablatures – just a mighty dome, spanning over forty feet, covering the entire space, with four groined corners to help support the cornice from which the dome springs.
So a worldly cube supporting a celestial dome -with both cube and dome pierced by a goodly array of windows, deep and arched below and round above.
Achieving this wide span dome with no internal support was the type of engineering challenge Wren relished. His architecture had first gained fame with his ingenious roof structure of 1664-9 above the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, where he achieved a roof span of over seventy feet and an astonishing open interior.
The weight of the dome at St. Mary’s – and its lateral thrust – is carried and restrained by the outer brick walls alone, with no buttresses.
Although flooded with light the interior does possess a somewhat dark a solemn dignity – thanks largely to the now darkened but always rich painting with which the surface of the dome is covered.
Presumably commissioned by the parish and painted between 1708-14 by a parishioner named William Snow – the scheme includes painted figures of the virtues and the name of God in Hebrew.
The inner dome of St Paul’s was painted, after 1715 by Sir James Thornhill. But I wonder if Wren would have approved this busy, dark and someway distracting design, hovering just above the heads of worshippers.
The joinery of the church is very good – observe the pulpit and altar rails – but of course much reordered in the 19th century when box pews were generally removed
At the east end is the great decorative glory of the church – the reredos executed by Grinling Gibbons in 1686.
This magical and most atmospheric interior is -in itself – a great act of ‘renewal and recovery.’
A bomb pierced the dome in 1940, exploded and, among other damage, blew the reredos into 2,000 pieces. It was restored in 1948-53. The post-war reconstruction – gentle and respectful – was overseen by architect Godfrey Allen.
The high artistic quality of this church is a reminder that the city churches building project, along with St Paul’s, was a vast college in instruction in the arts and crafts of architecture, masonry, joinery and plaster work. Wren assembled and trained an exemplary team that achieved a level of excellence that soon found expression around the country.
The high standards of design and execution achieved and established by Wren’s ‘band of brothers’ gave character and extraordinary erudition to the classical architecture of following generations, not only in Britain and Ireland, but also in the American colonies and in British Indian cities such as Calcutta (Kolkata)) and Bombey (Mumbai). This talented team – including Christopher Kempster, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Grinling Gibbons – laid the foundation for now internationally admired Georgian architecture.
This has long been one of the city’s most important and largest parish churches, placed on a dominant position on Cheapside – the city’s great street of trade and commerce, and once home to dealers in precious metal objects of fabulous quality.
So it is natural that Wren’s design for this church should be one of his most splendid and ambitious. Although a significant amount of fabric survived the fire Wren was able to create an ideal church that reflects the aspirations of his model designs. The church he designed was inspired by an heroic and long exemplary antique building that was a idiosyncratic permutation of the basilica plan. The mighty ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius, on the Forum in Rome and constructed in the early 4th century AD, were well known and much admired in the late 17th century, thanks largely to publication in such inspirational books as Sebastiano Serlio’s Five Books of Architecture of 1537-51 and Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libre dell’architettura of 1570. Wren took this ancient building as his model and produced a reduced scale version within the city as if to invoke the spirits of Roman London or – perhaps more directly – to suggest that London was now the new Rome and centre of the world.
As well as being a spirited evocation of the Basilica of Maxentius St Mary-le-Bow is also a fascinating repository of Wren details and designs. The large doors in the tower, opening onto Cheapside, are a playground of cherubs. Their faces are set within the Doric friezes and above each door loll full-figured cherubs, going about various activities. One, as with cherubs shown in panels below the lower windows of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is reading a text, Biblical – or perhaps something more arcane. There is a whiff of Freemasonry about many of Wren’s design – be it black and white chequer board floors -or Masonic imagery such as keys – which is not surprising since he was, according to his friends John Aubrey and John Evelyn,
‘adopted Brother of that Society’. (See Aubrey’s Natural Historie of Wiltshire).:
Indeed the tower on which these cherubs repose, with its magnificent crowning steeple, is, according Pevsner, the ‘proudest of all’ designed by Wren. Certainly it was the most lavish and by the time it was completed by 1680 had cost almost as much as the rest of the church – £7,388 as opposed to £8,033. The tower and steeple are indeed a glorious affair, being the masterly achievement of Gothic spirit by classical means. The top stage of the tower has huge arched windows framed by Ionic pilasters and topped by a massive entablature – so a veritable temple in itself. Above this is a parapet with finials formed by urns supported on scrolls or bows – a visual evocation of the name of the church – that achieve a splendid Gothic profile. Then the steeple, formed by a round colonnaded temple roofed with further serpentine scrolls or bows. Above this rises yet another colonnaded temple – this time right-angular in plan. This in turn supports a tapering and panelled obelisks also – in case one had not yet appreciated the pun – supported by scrolls of bowed profile.
St Mary-le-Bow was very grievously damaged during the Blitz which left the body of the church little more that a smoking shell. So the interior you see today it yet another act of renewal, rebuilt between 1956 and 1964 by architect Laurence King. It is a somewhat perplexing affair. Although the recreation of Wren’s architecture was achieved with care there is now an atmosphere of the 1950s about the building. This is perhaps no bad thing, indeed might ultimately give the interior particular interest as a product of its age. But those seeking the magic of the best Wren survivals might be a trifle disappointed. But perhaps, if the colour scheme, were slightly reduced – with less blue in the ceiling and more muted gilding – the municipal feel might be less overwhelming.
The medieval church was badly damaged in the Great Fire but not destroyed. So Wren chose to keep the tower and most of the outer walls except that to the east, which he replaced with a new elevation to the street, incorporating a venetian window (now blocked) topped by as pediment (now altered).
Wren utilised the ancient site , which was roughly of 3:2 proportion (square and a half), which was happily a classical and Palladian ideal proportion, and within this oblong contrived to lay out a centralised church with a Greek cross plan. In this case the four arms are defined by the walls of the church and by four freestanding columns that frame the central area and which help to support a coffered saucer dome that rises from pendentives that are, in this instance, supported by four not eight arches. The four arms of the Greek cross are covered with boldly leaping barrel vaults, that are off-set by the lower flat ceilings in the corner portions of the interior. This is, essentially, a Byzantine inspired quincunx plan that possess an almost late 18th neo-classical clarity and neo-antique vocabulary of ornament. All really most startling.
In the 1780s George Gwilt rebuilt the tower and west wall in a robust neo-classical superior warehouse style and in the 1820s James Savage did substantial work to vaults and plasterwork and added a cupola to the dome. The original joinery -including box pews – was further altered in the 1840s by W. Gibbs Roger. But after the war St. Mary-at-Hill was the only Wren city church to preserve the semblance of an original interior. As Pevsner observed in 1973 it had ‘the only remaining box pews in a Wren church.’ It was indeed a most precious survival, duly noted by Sir John Betjeman who called it
‘the least spoiled and the most gorgeous interior in the City, all the more exciting by being hidden away among cobbled alleys, paved passages, brick walls, overhung by plane trees.’
All that changed in 1988 – the church that had survived Blitz was badly damaged by a very serious fire. Vaults and dome had to be rebuilt – and this has been well done But only some of woodwork – most of which miraculously weathered the fire – has been reinstated. Notably the box pews remain in store.
The treatment of this interior is a salutary reminder that Wren has not been treated particularly well or respectfully after the war, which is strange given the high, and romantic, regard in which his city churches have long been held. While a number of bombed churches were thoughtfully and sensitively repaired – for example St Mary Abchurch and St Vedast Foster Lane, one bombed-out ruin was uprooted and sent abroad (St Mary Aldermanbury, which no resides in Fulton, Missouri); one was obliterated despite the fact that much of its tower survived (St. Mildred, Bread Street); the bomb-damaged ruins of St. Swithin, London Stone were unceremoniously cleared away in 1962, and in the case of the shell of Christ Church Newgate Street its splendid Baroque east facade was demolished in the 1970s for road widening. Other churches, of course, have been left as shells (St Dunstan’s-in-the-east), while in some cases only towers were suffered to remain, for example St Alban’s Wood Street and St. Augustine’s Watling Street.
Now only fourteen of Wren’s churches survive, having escaped 19th century demolition and gutting in the Blitz. But of these precious survivals all have been significantly altered, and during post-war repairs and reconstructions not one interior has rebuilt and ordered in exact and authentic manner to Wren’s original designs to show us what a Wren interior was originally like. Instead, like St. Mary-le-Bow, the reconstructions display, in large part, the spirit of their own age, with its conceptions of Christian worship.
St. Mary-at-Hill represents the precious opportunity to honour Wren, his vision and his achievement – and to give renewal and recovery a tangible and contemporary expression. The interior should be fully reinstated and the box pews put back in place and the city given back a church that would look much as it had in Wren’s day. It could once again be one of the most glorious, evocative and spiritually uplifting interiors in the city and regain the authentic atmosphere of the city’s Golden Age, after the monumental act of renewal that followed the Great Fire.
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