House | Architects & Build

Of lions & unicorns … the story & saviour of one of London’s most fabulous, and very British, Churches

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Posted by , 3rd May, 2017

In the background of William Hogarth’s famous ‘Gin Lane’ (below) – an illustration of the perils of gin-drinking – is a distant spire with classical sculptures. On its pinnacle, high above the chaos below, King George I glares out disapprovingly at the mayhem.

classical sculpturesWilliam Hogarth, Gin Lane,1751, Tate Britain, London – the very untoward perils of gin-drinking

Londoners were drinking on average two pints of gin a day

Published alongside ‘Beer Street’ as part of a campaign against the ‘Gin Craze’ of the 1730s, when the average Londoner was consuming two pints of gin a week, the result was the 1751 Gin Act that massively curtained the availability of cheap gin. Great Britain’s love affair with tea started thereafter, as the government encouraged it’s import to offer the masses an invigorating, but non-alcoholic distraction.

Allegorical references to the Union of the England & Scotland crowns are typical of Hawksmoor’s  most eccentric church

Look closer in Hogarth’s etching and you will see that George is not alone: below him a pair of lions chase a pair of unicorns around the base of the spire. These allegorical references to the Union of the crowns of England and Scotland are typical of Nicolas Hawksmoor’s (one of Britain’s most notable architects) most eccentric church, St George’s in Bloomsbury.

classical sculpturesThe spire of St Georges Bloomsbury, iconic architecture from Nicholas Hawksmoor

Sir Christopher Wren’s most famous apprentice

Never an architect to deal in half measures or to conform, Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren’s (architect of St Paul’s Cathedral) most famous apprentice, designed six extraordinary churches in London, each reflecting a new pride in British independence from the Catholic church and its non-continental – and increasingly British – identity. St George’s Bloomsbury was built from 1716 to 1727 prompted by the 1711 Fifty New Churches Act and a overwhelming sense of national protestant pride.

Theatrical ambiguity designed with a ‘strangeness of proportion’ to inspire awe

It comprised features never seen before in a British Church: a massive Corinthian portico based on the Temple of Bacchus in Roman Phoenicia on its south side, a stepped spire recalling the ancient Greek Mausoleum of Halicarnassus described by Pliny the Elder, as well as a theatrical ambiguity designed with a ‘strangeness of proportion’ to inspire awe.  It is the epitome of the English Baroque, favouring reference to the past through imagination and drama over the accurate sobriety of the followers of Palladio in Italy.

Lions stood over 10ft high

Nowhere is this imaginative interpretation more evident than the lions and unicorns at the base of the spire.  Each stood over 10ft high, the unicorns with gilded copper horns, the lions facing downwards claws gripping the stonework.

But, not everyone approved.  The creatures were removed in 1871 as ‘very doubtful ornaments’, by a Victorian church ethic that frowned on their idiosyncrasy and extravagance.  The animals were replaced by dull swags and ‘knots of cloth’

By the end of the 20th Century St Georges Bloomsbury was in a sorry state

The church underwent many changes over the decades that followed, each one detracting from Hawksmoor’s original design.  St George’s troubles were further compounded by falling congregations, struggling to use a difficult space and by the costs of cleaning and restoration.  By the end of the 20th Century it was in a sorry state.

Things were to change … World Monuments Fund Britain stepped in with expertise & resources

Things were to change.  In 2002, and again in 2004, World Monuments Fund Britain (WMFB) placed St George’s on the World Monuments Watch list.

WMFB is a smaller charity, connected to a big one – World Monuments Fund in New York.  Together they have carried out over 600 initiatives in 100 countries across the globe. Here in the UK WMFB concentrate on restoring British cultural and architectural icons.  Buildings and monuments that have a crucial place in the story of architecture, ideas and craftsmanship (really, the key themes that Beyond Bespoke is championing in Britain).

World Monuments Fund Britain oversaw the comprehensive renovation of the whole church

Expertise and resources soon followed, leading to a comprehensive renovation of the whole church.  Much of that work focused on Hawksmoor’s original plans that had been lost in the intervening centuries, including the reinstatement of his north gallery and, as significantly, reorientation of the church interior back to focus on an alter and reredos in the sanctuary.  Externally, the church was repaired and decades of soot-blackened grime removed to reveal the original beauty of the Portland stone.

The result is bold, spectacular and very British – just as Hawksmoor intended

Perhaps the most controversial decision – but ultimately the right one – was to restore the lions and unicorns.  This was no easy task, given their massive scale (comprising over nine tonnes in total), their location high on the tower and the lack of detailed original drawings to guide.

classical sculpturesMaster Craftsman recreating Hawksmoor’s Lions, constructed in 72 separate pieces

In the end a marvellous piece of craftsmanship was executed by sculptor Tim Crawley and stonemasons Fairhaven of Anglese.  The new lions and unicorns were based on the best available evidence, taken from illustrations and sketches prior to Street’s 1871 replacement, and then constructed in 72 separate pieces before being hoisted up the tower and keyed into position.

A golden horn, masterfully set in place on the unicorn by HRH Prince Michael of Kent

The final stage was placing a golden horn on the unicorn, masterfully set in place by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, World Monuments Fund Britain’s patron

classical sculpturesThe result is bold, spectacular and very British – just as Hawksmoor intended.

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World Monuments Fund Britain continues to support St George’s Bloomsbury. In 2017, working with the parish council, they plan to improve the entrance arrangements and access onto busy Bloomsbury Way. WMFB are a charity receiving no assistance from Government, so support for this and all their other work is necessary and always appreciated http://wmf.org.uk/support/

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