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adventures in architecture Posts

Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury (1850)

The other morning I caught Christ the King, Bloomsbury bathed in dramatic light. Pausing to take the photo below, I had another go at applying the skills learned on my course to the church’s exterior.

Church of Christ the King, Bloomsbury

Early English Gothic revival was my first guess. Why? Firstly, age: the honey-coloured ashlar is insufficiently weathered, so it’s plainly not old enough to be a medieval gothic church. We haven’t yet reached the Victorian period on our course, so I don’t yet feel confident identifying the nuances that would place it firmly of that age, though from earlier studies of the variations of gothic architecture, Christ the King seems be Early English Gothic in style.

What makes it so? Most apparent are the narrow, plain, lancet windows with little-to-no tracery, typical of the Early English Gothic style of the late 12th and early 13th centuries (see my previous post on Wells Cathedral). Supporting the structure’s weight are a series of external buttresses, an invention from the same period. However, the south transept rose widow, uncommon in England at the time, nods to the later English Decorative style, though its design here seems a little perfunctory, another clue perhaps to this being an imitation of an earlier style.

And the answer is (according to Wikipedia)…

Early English Neo-Gothic in style and cruciform in plan, the church was built by Raphael Brandon between 1850 and 1854 (with Brandon’s interior designed in 1853) for the Victorian church movement the Catholic Apostolic Church (also known as “Irvingites”). It is built of Bath stone, with a tiled roof.,_Bloomsbury

So I wasn’t too far off (though if I had to put a year on it I’d have probably said nearer 1900). The article also notes (citing the church’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography) that:

‘… this extremely large church was criticized by a contemporary for its lack of originality of design. Recent scholars, however, have drawn attention to the combination of 13th- and 15th-century Gothic precedents in its design,’

Both points of which tie with my initial impression … so I must be learning something!

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The Rookery, Congress House, Bloomsbury

Many years ago when working in central London I’d spend lunchtimes exploring Bloomsbury, its bookshops and squares, its Georgian terraces and modernist university blocks. I remember the front of Congress House (1956), with its Bernard Meadows sculpture, though don’t think I’d ever ventured around the side of the building until recently, when I was surprised to see what appeared to be a recently renovated entrance:

The Rookery, Congress House
The Rookery, Congress House

Named ‘The Rookery’, the project was completed in 2018 with the purpose of offering commercial office space while updating the rundown rear entrance and staff facilities. It’s a colourful, curvaceous addition to some rather grey backstreets, with a touch of the art-deco-ocean-liner aesthetic upstairs, though I don’t think the architects would thank me for saying that the projecting row of perpendicular windows remind me of the old restaurant spanning the M1 at Leicester Forest East services (the height of sophisticated dining in 1966).

Architecture Today notes that the ‘undulating side elevation on Dyott Street is … exuberant in form, with a complex composition of contrasting curves and volumes’. However, it was intriguing to find that the curving of the updated facade still follows original architect David Aberdeen’s plan, which was itself influenced (constrained?) by the slightly acute intersecting angle where Dyott Street meets Bainbridge Street.

By coincidence I happened at time to be reading about St Giles Rookery, the infamous 19th century slum that once occupied this area, in David Olusoga’s A House Through Time, which explains how the building of New Oxford Street cut through the slum and would eventually lead to its ‘clearing’. The narrow street layout north of New Oxford Street, however, remained the same (with some renaming). So fascinating to see that while the slum has gone, some of the Rookery’s street layout is still there, influencing architectural decisions in the 21st century …

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Sketch of Blickling Hall (1619)

I found an old sketch I did of Blickling Hall (1619) on a trip to Norfolk, where I also wrote an article about it and visited nearby Felbrigg Hall (1620).

Blickling Hall, built in 1619-20 by Robert Lyminge, who was also responsible for Hatfield House.

Both houses claim to be designed by Robert Lyminge, though Lyminge‘s claim to Felbrigg appears to apply largely to the Jacobean entrance front, as much of the rest was altered in the 18th and 19th centuries. Lyminge’s involvement with Blickling is greater documented, and he was buried in the churchyard there in 1628.

Also particularly memorable from that trip to Blickling was the rather creepy pyramid mausoleum built for the Hobart family in 1793. I didn’t have time to sketch that – but you can read about it here.

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St George’s church, Bloomsbury (1730)

The entrance to St George’s church, Bloomsbury, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor and consecrated in 1730.

The English Baroque was the subject of Week 4. We looked at buildings designed by Wren, Hawksmoor, Vanbrugh and Gibbs, and tried to define what characterised the baroque in English architecture, how it differed from baroque expression across the rest of Europe.

We also discussed how ‘eccentric’ Hawksmoor was, which prompted lively discussion. I had passed Hawksmoor’s St George’s church on Bloomsbury Way a week earlier and managed to take advantage of the sunny day to take some good pictures outside as well as in. The porticoed entrance with its fine Corinthian columns and pediment harmonise well with its quarter-attached set flanking the south entrance, which was beautifully illuminated with shards of morning sunlight streaking over the Portland stone the day I visited:

The steps to the entrance to St George’s give it a grandeur lost by St Paul’s in Covent Garden (which also originally had steps leading up to the portico) due to centuries of ground raising. It’s also difficult to get a real sense of proportion of St George’s given the density of surrounding buildings – I wonder whether the creation of New Oxford Street was a factor here?

Attached Corinthian columns at St George’s.

The church’s famous tower, modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and topped by a statue of George I in Roman dress, is an essay in itself, but sits awkwardly behind the Roman portico, and suffers like the rest of the exterior by the viewer finding it difficult to appreciate the church as a whole due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings and passing traffic.

St George’s tower, famously depicted in Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751)

The interior, while bright and full of detail, also posed questions. If you have a traditional eastern alter, as St George’s has, why did Hawksmoor position the entrance to the south? Doesn’t this make the use of space awkward? A guess would be that there may have been alterations over time that necessitated this orientation, but a brief web search suggests that the plot of land was this narrow when Hawksmoor designed the church, and that he went against its commissioners’ instructions to build it in this way.

Reading Summerson (Architecture in Britain, 1530-1830, published 1954, still a standard text and recommended reading four our course), I was struck by his description of Hawksmoor as ‘dour, proud, deep’ (not characteristics one usually associated with eccentricity!), in contrast to his colleague Vanbrugh, who Hawksmoor worked with at Blenheim, who was ‘neither dour nor proud, and if he was deep, the depths were flood-lit by a wit which had few equals …’.

The eastern alter at St George’s.

Summerson also mentions Hawksmoor’s modesty, and to a degree I see these character traits in his architecture: a desire to impress his own individuality through eclecticism (and in doing so be considered the equal of his peers), though grounded in a rather English sense of solidity-through-restraint (while Vanbrugh ‘excelled in the handling of mass’, he perhaps did so with a flair that Hawksmoor was unable or willing to match).

It would have been fascinating to witness their working relationship …

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