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St Paul’s Church (Bedford Street)
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One of the great first encounters in 20th-century theatre is that between Professor Henry Higgins and the flower-girl Eliza Doolittle in Shaw’s Pygmalion. It takes place beneath the portico of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, an apt theatrical setting for a church close to so many theatres. St Paul’s has become known as the actors’ church and has a large number of theatrical memorials.

St Paul’s Church (Bedford Street)

The east portico in Covent Garden, where Professor Higgins met Eliza Doolittle in Pygmaleon.

St Paul’s is all that is left of a remarkable 17th-century development. Francis Russell, the 4th Earl of Bedford, planned to build on his land in Covent Garden to replenish his family’s finances. He secured a royal licence for the project, which stipulated that it must provide a “distinguished ornament” to London; and he also secured the services of Inigo Jones, the most celebrated architect of the day. Jones designed a stately Classical square, which he called a piazza because of his Italian inspiration. On its west side, St Paul’s was to stand. According to a well-known story, first recorded by Horace Walpole, the 18th-century gossip, Jones was warned by the Earl of Bedford to keep the expenses low. “Well, then”, Jones replied, “you shall have the handsomest barn in England”.

St Paul’s Church (Bedford Street)

Modern memorials to Rattigan, Coward and Chaplin from many of the “actors’ church”.

St Paul’s was built in 1631-3 but was not consecrated until 1638. In 1795 it was burnt, but was restored on the old lines by Thomas Hardwick. The building is a towerless oblong, with tall, arched windows, a notably overhanging roof and a prominent Tuscan portico to the piazza. The angle pillars are square, and the two between are round. The east end was intended to include the main entrance, and the alter was to be at the west end, but Archbishop Laud disallowed this arrangement, and it was reversed.

The interior is undivided, save for a Doric west gallery and a screen beneath. At one time the church had north and south galleries, but they were removed by William Butterfield in 1872. He also raised the east end, a typical Victorian move to make the alter more prominent. Fixed to the organ gallery are the royal arms and also the arms of the Dukes of Bedford, the historic patrons. The stained glass in the east windows is by Brian Thomas, 1968-9.

St Paul’s Church (Bedford Street)

The interior, seen here facing east, was much reordered by William Butterfield in the 1870s.

The church has many associations with famous Londoners. J. M. W. Turner and W. S. Gilbert were baptized here; and among those buried here have been Sir Peter Lely, the painter; Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras; Grinling Gibbons, the celebrated carver; and Thomas Arne, who composed Rule, Britannia! Arne has a memorial on the north wall.

Covent Garden takes its name from the Abbot and Convent of Westminster, for Westminster Abbey once owned the land. The reformation brought the property into the 1st Earl of Bedford’s hands in 1552.

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