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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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