London’s great Georgian churches come back to life: Hawksmoor and Gibbs restored.

Since Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party came to power in Britain in1997 the official focus on architecture has been relentlessly modern. For years, party top dogs were even forbidden to be seen in the context of anything historic. Conservation was throwback, hence Tory or, worse, Old Labour. So it is extraordinary that, almost by stealth, a wonderful thing has happened in London: the salvation of some of its finest 18th century churches.

Back in the 1990s, theirs was a sorry plight. Hawksmoor’s famous church of Christ Church Spitalfields (completed 1729) had long been saved from demolition, but its restoration had dragged on for decades. Hardly anyone seemed to notice one of his other great churches, the rapidly decaying St. George’s Bloomsbury of 1731. Even Simon Jenkins’ bestselling “England’s Thousand Best Churches” oddly managed to ignore it. Meanwhile the 1733 St. Luke’s in Old Street with its obelisk spire – in which the redoubtable Hawksmoor also had a hand – remained a roofless hulk, buddleia sprouting from its cracked, subsiding walls. It was a shameful state of affairs to find in one of the world’s greatest and wealthiest capital cities.

But today, all that has been turned round. Three years ago St. Luke’s was imaginatively brought back into use as a new rehearsal and performance space for the London Symphony Orchestra, based in the nearby Barbican. Christ Church Spitalfields finally secured the funding it needed to accelerate its complex restoration, and reopened in almost too perfect shape in 2004 – as a functioning church as well as a noted classical music venue, hub of the Spitalfields Festival. Its cousin in Bloomsbury is now being rapidly restored thanks to an initiative by the World Monuments Fund. Next month (October 2006), the task will be complete.

There is more to come. The 1726 church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields by James Gibbs, overlooking the north-east corner of Trafalgar Square, is to be spruced up as part of a remarkably ambitious £36m scheme to extend its crypt rooms, long used both for a homeless centre and for a highly-rated cafe. A huge L-shaped excavation has appeared around the church as work gets under way on this almost entirely underground building (plus a restored John Nash building alongside), designed by architect Eric Parry. It will contain rehearsal rooms for musicians, meeting rooms for the church and the local Chinese community, a chapel, parish hall and much else to add to the church’s very varied set of activities. The Heritage Lottery Fund is once more involved.

All of these are, in their way, responses to a thorny nationwide dilemma: churches are a key part of our cities, towns and villages, we would be sorry to see them go, but congregations are dwindling and the Church of England is by no means the fabulously wealthy institution it once was. In a largely secular, or at most multi-faith society, what are we to do with all these churches? What new meaning and purpose can they acquire?

St. George’s in Bloomsbury is the simplest case of all these. It was a church, it remains a church, and though it will become more of a music and exhibition centre now that its crypt – until recently stuffed with coffins as was the custom- has been emptied, it will stay what it always was. That is, one of London’s more characterful corners.

In fact, the church struck lucky. Plaster was starting to fall from the portico, water was soaking in, trees were growing out of the extraordinary stepped-pyramid tower, complete with heroic statue of King George I on top. About the time that the church started casting around for money at the end of the 1990s, the World Monuments Fund was looking for an exemplary London restoration project. The Paul Mellon Fund was keen to get involved, put up nearly half the money, while the Heritage Lottery Fund picked up the tab for a lot of the rest. It all cost £8.6m, work began in 2002 and is now nearly finished. Compared to Spitalfields (a bigger church, admittedly) this has been lightning-fast. Architects are Molyneux Kerr with Inskip and Jenkins.

Heritage-lobby good taste is much in evidence inside. The church used to be relatively gaudily painted (“I thought it looked magnificent,” says one of the church officials, tongue only slightly in cheek. You get the impression that the tastes of congregation and restorers do not always coincide). Now all is taken back to a presumed original state of calm stone-coloured distemper and dark wood . More importantly, the axis of the church has been turned back to Hawksmoor’s original east-west layout. By the late 18th century, the altar had been moved to the north. You can see why – the portico and main doors are on the south side. But it seems Hawksmoor had always meant his row of entrance doors to be largely ornamental, and made his real entrance at the side. That characteristic perversity – what looks like the main entrance isn’t really – is now reinstated, along with Hawksmoor’s east-west alignment. So you enter through the bottom of the tower on the western side instead.

However, it is on the outside, at the base of the pyramid roof, that the most visible restoration has been made. Hawksmoor’s tower is a fantasia on the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. This homage to classical antiquity was and is unique in English churches. But whereas the Mausoleum had a statue on top of its stepped-pyramid roof, it did not, so far as we know, have giant beasts chasing each other round its base. Hawksmoor, ever the eccentric, decided that his church needed two lions and two unicorns, one for each corner. Such beasts are usually seen in formal heraldic pose on the royal coat of arms, but here they are engaged in a game of architectural tag.

Those spoilsport Victorians removed them – perhaps bits were falling off them by then. So they have been re-created by sculptor Tim Crawley, and they are big. Look up, passer-by, and you will be intrigued. What on earth was going through Hawksmoor’s head? What political message do they convey? He was no barrel of laughs, was broody old Nick, so these cavorting symbols of royalty must have signified something. Hogarth used the church in the background of his famous engraving “Gin Lane” and the implication is that, like the debased humans in the foreground, they are roaring drunk.

The British branch of the World Monuments Fund is now turning its attention to Horace Walpole’s seriously neglected Gothic-revival Strawberry Hill house in Twickenham, but that’s another story. In Bloomsbury, they have only to re-instate Hawksmoor’s original north gallery – removed when they put the altar at that end in 1789 – and get rid of a rather intrusive organ installed in the 1950s, and the job will be done. It feels good: unlike Spitalfields, which to me seems just a touch too sumptuously over-restored, Bloomsbury retains some rough edges, even in the new stone floor of the church with its underfloor heating coils. I hope they preserve the soot-blackened external flanks of the church, which they are pondering cleaning. Hawksmoor and soot get along just fine, and there’s not much of the real stuff left in London.

In all, Hawksmoor did seven London churches. Of the others, St. Mary Woolnoth in the City survived the indignity of having part of Bank underground station built in its crypt. Three others were badly damaged in the Blitz, though all were patched up after: St. Alfege in Greenwich, St. George-in-the-East and St. Anne, Limehouse – which had been Victorianised after an earlier fire in 1850. That should be the next great Hawksmoor rescue project.

The great thing about the man is that, for all his blinding originality, raw emotion and interesting symbolism, he was also a government official. This former assistant to Sir Christopher Wren was a senior honcho in the Royal Works department, and one of the two surveyors appointed to carry out the “Fifty new churches” Act of 1711, intended to bring the Established church into the new suburbs where non-conformism was taking root. James Gibbs of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was the other. Hence so many churches of such similar date, though in the end only 12 were built. Each one is unique. No wonder they are rushing to restore them. It’s not just that they don’t build ’em like that any more. You just don’t get civil servants like him any more.

Links

Reinstating Hawksmoor’s beasts: http://www.thebeasts.info
World Monuments Fund in Britain: http://www.wmf.org.uk
St. Martin in the Fields restoration: http://www2.stmartin-in-the-fields.org

Text © Hugh Pearman. A fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London.