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St Martin-in-the-Fields
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St Martin-in-the-FieldsTrafalgar Square is so central and important a public apace in central London that the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields at its north-east corner seems to have the most prominent site of any church in the city. Since Dick Sheppard’s time as Vicar (1914-27), it has also had a national and international role, through its broadcasting, publications and music. Before the square was laid out in the 1820s, however, the church was relatively hidden away in St Martin’s Lane, north of the main road that went from the Strand to Whitehall. St Martin’s parish was apparently taken out of St Margaret’s parish when almost everywhere west of the City of London was under the sway of Westminster Abbey. Yet modern archeology has shown that St Martin’s stands in the middle of the site of Lundenwic, the London of the 8th and 9th centuries, about which St Bede the Venerable wrote. Lundenwic obviously had its churches; was there one where St Martin’s now stands? It so happens that St Martin lent his name to a disproportionate number of early English churches. It would be fitting if such a prominent church did have an exceptionally early origin.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

The prominent west front includes the royal arms in the tympanum of the portico.

The present church was built in 1721-6 and was designed by James Gibbs. The architect’s portrait may be seen on the staircase in the north-west corner, and there was once a bust of him by Rysbrack, but that is now in Victoria and Albert Museum. The church’s most familiar element is its grand Corinthian portico, whose six columns are raised on a flight of steps above St Martin’s Lane. The portico’s tympanum bears the arms of King George I, who was not only the reigning monarch when the church was new, but was also its churchwarden. St Martin’s is the parish church of St James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace, and its registers have many royal entries. The Latin inscription on the entablature states that the parishioners of St Martin’s built this sacred house of God in AD 1726.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

The east end, very light after the church’s recent restoration, now focuses on the unusual new glazing of the east window.

The west tower stands behind the portico, but appears to sit on its roof. It actually surmounts a vestibule and is flanked by the staircase to the galleries. The combination of steeple and portico has been a model for many later churches in England and North America.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

The columns of the nave support block entablatures and a vault that is adorned with gilded and painted plasterwork.

The body of the church has the usual two tiers of windows for a Georgian galleried church, but here the windows each have a “Gibbs surround”, in which raised blocks of stone are spaced up the sides and round the arch. It was a widespread motif in the 18th century. Between the windows there are giant Corinthian pilasters and, in the east and west bays, giant recessed columns, which give the sense of monumentality. A row of urns was intended to surmount the balustrade above, but no urns were ever made.The east end has a large Venetian window. The church is fortunate in its surroundings. It has a block of land to itself, enclosed by robust original railings: a Classical temple on a temple mount. On its north side it faces the former vestry hall and former parochial school, and to the east there are the buildings of Nash’s West Strand Improvements, all sympathetic Georgian neighbours.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

A view at gallery level, which was always an important part of an 18th-century church interior.

There is a wide, spacious nave, for the galleries are set well back and the tall columns support block entablatures, from which rise a shallow tunnel-vault. There is no clerestory. The ceiling is divided into gilded and painted plasterwork panels by Artari and Bagutti, and the royal arms are prominently placed over the chancel arch. The north-east and south-east corners have special pews at gallery level, with canted sides facing the nave. The one to the left is a royal pew, and that on the right an Admiralty pew, formerly bedecked with an array of naval flags. The body of the church has pews of 1799 which were later cut down, a fine pulpit of the same date, and a font of 1689, which came from the previous church. A portrait of Dick Sheppard hangs on the west wall, and a chapel named after him is in the crypt on the south side. The church’s modern reputation for an expensive ministry almost entirely derives from him.

Nell Gwyn was buried here when the previous church still stood. Also buried at St Martin’s were Thomas Chippendale, the well-known craftsman, and Sir Winston Churchill (died 1688), the father of the 1st Duke of Marlborough and ancestor of the 20th-century statesman.

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