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St George’s Bloomsbury
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A patron saint, a new monarch and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world are all celebrated in the fabric of St George’s, Bloomsbury. It is regarded as one of the most authentically Classical churches in London. Its architect was Nicholas Hawksmoor, whose usual vigorous style produced here a deep portico that has been admired as the most Roman of its type in London, and whose stepped spire is based on Pliny’s account of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. St George’s was built under the Fifty New Churches Act.

St George’s Bloomsbury

Giant columns and heavy entablatures are the vocabulary of Hawksmoor’s internal plan.

The ancient parish out of which St George’s was formed was that of St Giles-in-the-Fields. The Bloomsbury portion had developed very rapidly in the later 17th century and had become a decidedly fashionable quarter. The streets and squares of the parish resound today with the names of the nobility. By the time the new church was completed in 1731, the Duke of Bedford and the Duke of Montagu were local residents and vestrymen (or parochial councillors); Sir Hans Sloane, the rich physician and owner of the manor of Chelsea, who was to be the principal founder of the British Museum, lived in Bloomsbury Place (where his house survives); and Wiliam Hicks, the royal brewer and Member of Parliament, who paid for the statue of King George I on top of the steeple, was also a vestryman.

The Commissioners of the Fifty New Churches Act began to discuss a church in Bloomsbury in 1714. James Gibbs was directed to survey a site, and both he and Nicholas Hawksmoor were asked to design a church. Then in 1715 Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect of Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, was asked to make a design: what an extravagance he might have produced! Hawksmoor finally won the day in 1716, and work on his church proceeded from then until 1731.

St George’s Bloomsbury

The reredos is seen here restored to its original position in the eastern apse. The 17th-century chandelier is a worthy new addition.

It is the stepped steeple surmounted by the statue that gives St George’s its distinctive frontage. In this case, we do not have a steeple that appears to rest on top of the portico or that stands behind it (as at St Martin-in-the-Fields). The deep portico fronts Bloomsbury Way on the south and is raised on a flight of steps. The tower is placed instead on the west side, where it does not compete with the portico. The steeple was adorned with lions, unicorns, festoons and crowns until they were removed in 1871, but they were reinstated in 2006. The steeple appears in Hogarth’s Gin Lane, dating from 1751. Less familiar to visitors is the church’s north front, which is very different from the south portico and yet amounts to an equally impressive Classical composition. It consists of five bays of arched windows and blank arcading in two tiers, the upper divided by Corinthian half-columns, the lower by Corinthian pilasters. The whole is surmounted by a pediment, with one large semicircular motif in the tympanum, and below the lower tier there are huge keystones to the windows of the crypt.

The cost of the church reached about £31,000, inclusive of the rectory. For all its splendour and the high social standing of the district, the site was cramped, and had a natural north-south axis rather than the usual east-west one. Hawksmoor nevertheless put the alter on the east side. The interior was reordered in 1781 and the principal motive was to increase the number of seats. This reordering was reversed in the recent restoration.

St George’s Bloomsbury

The interior facing west, looking towards the monument under the tower to Charles Grant, Chairman of the East India Company, by Samuel Manning the elder.

Inside, the plan chiefly features a central square that is higher than the rest and is lit by large clerestory windows. The alter was on the north side until recently, beyond two wide arches that spring from short stretches of entablature, supported by paired columns. The details of these features are gilded. The architecture of the north side looks unduly complicated, given that this side was originally intended to be just a lateral aisle and to be largely obscured by a gallery. On the west side there

St George’s Bloomsbury

A detail of the reredos, the focus of the interior.

is a space beneath the tower, and on the east there is an apse. The reredos was originally placed in this apse, and is now placed there again. The ceiling decoration of the apse (by Isaac Mansfield) not only points to the initial layout by being a mark of honour for an altar, but proves the matter by including a “pelican in her piety”, symbolic of the Eucharist. The reredos that was made for the apse was moved to the north wall in 1781 and has now returned to its old home. The church originally had north and south galleries; the former was the Duke of Montagu’s, the latter the Duke of Bedford’s. (Servants sat in the tower gallery.) There is still the old south gallery, which until recently housed a 19th-century organ brought from Emmanuel Church, Maida Hill, in 1952. The north gallery is a recent (and unusual) revival. G. E. Street cut down the box-pews and the pulpit in 1871 and moved the pulpit to one side (east of the altar) from its original central position. The paving is new.

St George’s Bloomsbury

A graceful staircase, with an arched window in the background.

The only grand monument stands under the tower and commemorates Charles Grant (died 1823), Chairman of the East India Company and Member of Parliament for Inverness. The East India Company paid for the statue and it was carved by Samuel Manning the elder (1788-1842). Some smaller memorials commemorate officials of the British Museum or their wives: see the tablets to Frederick Madden’s wife and son (both died 1830) and to Frances Jane, Lady Ellis (died 1854), the wife of Sir Henry Ellis.

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