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‘Bombs clattered down on St. George’s-in-the-East - only the sturdy shell remains’

John Summerson’s obituary note for one of Hawksmoor’s infamous London churches

Originally published in November 1941

When the National Buildings Record was established, early this year, its first act was to obtain supplementary records of the Greater London churches. Among the subjects chosen was the rarely visited Hawksmore church of St. George’ s-in-the-East. The interior photographs reproduced on this and the following pages were taken for the Record a few days before the building was completely gutted by fire. The exterior photographs are from the same source, but were mostly taken after the fire, which, it will be observed, did little damage to the exterior masonry.

Incendiary bombs clattered down on St. George’s-in-the-East in one of the biggest air raids of this year. Some were put out, but a fire started in the tower. The vast timbering of the roof caught alight, fell into the church, burned up every vestige of the wood-work and calcined the columns. Only the sturdy shell remains.

St george etching jpg

St george etching jpg

St. George’s is, as everybody knows, the work of Nicholas Hawksmore. It is one of the three churches he built in the old parish of Stepney under the Act for Building Fifty New Churches, introduced by the Tory Government of 1710. The other two are St. Anne’s, Limehouse, and Christ Church, Spitalfields. These three enormous white temples, presented by the State to a population of seafarers, rope-makers, ship’s chandlers and silk-weavers, stood in a landscape of damp meadows and pigmy russet hamlets. Then, as now, th_e churches must have seemed too noble, too sacerdotal for their neighbourhoods. The parishioners, one · imagines, would readily have accepted snug galleried boxes like the churches at Deptford and Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Woolwich, instead of accomplished and profound works of art. Hawksmore is not quite at home in the East End. Perhaps because of this, perhaps because he took architecture rather beyond the ken of the ordinary man, London has never accepted these proud, lonely churches among her great monuments. The strong element of fantasy (as strong and original as in Swift, Hawskmore’s nearest parallel in literature) has frightened the conventional critic. An absurd and demonstrably false theory that Hawksmore was a dullwitted offspring of Vanbrugh has misled the readers of text-books. And so when enemy assault tears out the vaults and columns of St. George’s, the fact is less noticed than the blasting of some indifferent ornament in one of the least masterly masterpieces of Sir Christopher Wren.

‘What evidence we have about Hawksmore’s life and studies makes it not too difficult to probe his mind and learn something of his point of view’

The foundation stone of St. George’s was laid in 1715, when its architect was fifty-four: a rather dour elderly man, painfully prone togout, utterly self-effacing and utterly absorbed in his passion for architecture. Three years before, he had begun St. Anne’s, Limehousecuriously enough almost the first work associated with his name alone. How much he had contributed to Wren’s later churches, to St. Paul’s and to Chelsea, and to Vanbrugh’s enormous works, nobody will ever know. But St. Anne’s is pure Hawksmore and so is St. George’s. Both are perfectly mature, the fruits of a lifetime of thought and experience, decisive in plan, precisely articulated. H. S. Goodhart-Rendel has called St. George’s “one of the most profound and expressive designs in the whole range of modern architecture,” and his comparative study of the Hawksmore churches shows this to be no off-hand verdict. The church is, indeed, a breath-taking fusion of discipline and fantasy, of scholarship and imagination.

What evidence we have about Hawksmore’s life and studies makes it not too difficult to probe his mind and learn something of his point of view. The great fact about him is his extraordinary detachment. He seems to have been a man of wide and unconventional learning. He was one of the very few architects of his time, for instance, who could not only discern the merits of a Jacobean building but hazard a guess at the source of the continental influences which produced it. Such near-contemporary scholarship is rare at any time and in sharpest contrast to the PalladioInigo bigotry of most of the younger architects of 1715. His classicism is Classical in the most understanding sense: no portico in Britain is more nobly Roman than that of St. George’s, Bloomsbury. His Gothic work is neither sham nor dilettantist, but a thoughtful, appreciative revision of medireval forms. As a technician in the practical sense he had the reputation of being competent to the last degree. And none of his knowledge was for show. It was the private storehouse on which his imagination freely drew.

Hawksmore motifs

St georgeinthe east towers jpg

St georgeinthe east towers jpg

It is in motifs such as the panelled pilasters of the tower, or the finials on top of the lantern, that Hawksmore’s personal style comes out most poignantly. No other English architect, not even Vanbrugh-and it has by no means yet been established how far Hawksmore was responsible for some of the most daring features in Castle Howard and Blenheim-has ventured to contrast so violently the bareness of unmoulded recesses, deep reveals and heavy architraves with the fantastic ornament blossoming out in a few sensitively chosen places. The spot where the sturdy fluting of the capitals of the buttresses meets the delicate fluting of the circular finials with their busy swags is immensely instructive.

Looking at St. George’s, one needs to understand something of this intellectual detachment before one can feel perfectly at home with it. The plan is developed from a Greek cross, with giant Doric columns supporting an exceedingly flat elliptical vault. The galleries fall naturally into place as tribunes between the columns. Narrow “transepts” are added at east and west, and these have semi-circular barrel vaults; their projections, on plan, beyond the walls of the church return against staircase towers which are carried up as turrets, more than half Gothic in character. At the west end is the immense steeple, again decidedly Gothic in origin, with its side buttresses and octagonal lantern, but thoroughly Roman in technique. In the design of these features one enters that curious world of architectural abstraction which Hawksmore and Vanbrugh seem to have shared between them. The insistence on plain massive masonry, the openings with heavy architraves and deep reveais, the emphatic shelf-like cornices, and the pedestals introduced diagonally at the foot of the lantern-all these things relate the design to Blenheim and to the service wings at Castle Howard and to the discarded designs for a chapel at Greenwich. It is emotional, deeply romantic, architecture -a foretaste of Piranesi but without a hint of the swagger of Italian Baroque; a native style which seemed to spring from nowhere and which vanished with its few great exponents.

When St. George’s was burnt, it did not stand exactly as Hawksmore had left it. A miniature timber spire had vanished from the steeple. Minor alterations had been made when the building was “repaied and beautified” in 1788. Coloured glass of exceptionally charming quality, based on Reynolds’s work at New College, Oxford, had been placed iin the apse windows in the early nineteenth century, when the iron gates to the churchyard were also constructed. The same period contributed the Grecian communion rails, while later in the century extensive redecorations were effected in the hope of producing an atmosphere more appropriate to the century. But most of Hawksmore’s fittings had survived, including the pulpit with its marquetry panels, the churchwardens’ pews, the gallery fronts and organ-case. All these were said to have been in “Dutch” oak, meaning oak imported from the Continent, perhaps from Austria. Apart from the pulpit, they were not of outstanding value except in so far as they formed part of this grand and spacious interior.

Few will remember the interior of St. George’s, for the church was very generally locked. Standing in a district where threequarters of the inhabitants are Jews and many of the remainder Roman Catholics, it was one of London’s unwanted churches. It had once had some reputation for its music and, . further back, in the eighteen-fifties, had been the scene of dreadful anti-high-church brawls, when hooligans pelted the Rector and set dogs on to the surpliced choir. But its last days were days of melancholy padlocked silence, as if its doom was understood and patiently expected.

Some interior details

St georgeinthe east interior 02 jpg

St georgeinthe east interior 02 jpg

St georgeinthe east interior jpg

St georgeinthe east interior jpg

The composition of a rectangular church as a vaulted Greek cross with flat-ceilinged corner rectangles supported by columns was not invented by Hawksmore. He had it from Wren (St. Anne and St. Agnes), who in his tum must have had it from the Netherlands. The severely Roman details are also of the Wren school. While Hawksmore was certainly responsible .for their use, it is not so sure whether he himself designed any of the woodwork such as the charming swag over the inner doorway below the western tower, through which the church was entered.