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English Church Architecture.

 

LONDON, St. Bride Fleet Street  (TQ 315 811),

CITY OF LONDON. 

 

 

One of Sir Christopher Wren's most iconic  London City churches.

 

 

This is one of the best known London churches by Sir Christopher Wren (1632 - 1723), due chiefly to its conspicuous soaring spire (seen left, from the southeast) which rises like a wedding cake in six octagonal and diminishing stages, the first three buttressed by pilasters at the angles and pierced on each side by a round-headed arch with a lion's head or cartouche instead of a keystone, the fourth with engaged columns with composite capitals and little rectangular openings beneath lunettes, the diminutive fifth with little rectangular openings in the cardinal sides only, and the sixth in the form of a spirelet - narrow and needle-like, with fluted sides rising to a ball finial.  By comparison, the tower beneath is relatively plain, as it must be if the eye is not to be completely overwhelmed, but the bell-stage 'has broad segmental pediments, an unexceptional device but one not used elsewhere amongst Wren's towers' (Nikolaus Pevsner and Simon Bradley, The Buildings of England: the City of London, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2002, p. 210)  and there are engaged columns at the angles, pilasters immediately inside, wide round-arched bell-openings, and urns on the parapet.  The design overall is ornate and distinctly Venetian, and, perhaps, only just held within harmonious constraints.  

 

St. Bride's was built between 1670 and 1684 although the spire was only added in 1701-3 (Gerald Cobb, London City Churches, London, Batsford, 1977, p. 149).  Unfortunately the interior was burnt out by enemy action in the Second World War and today is the result of restoration completed in 1957.  The spire was Wren's tallest at 266' (68.9 m.).  The exterior taken as a whole, is completely symmetrical, and the aisled nave and chancel is five bays long, with round-arched windows to the three central bays and little circular windows to the eastern and western bays, set above little doorways with triangular pediments.  The principal doorway, which is much larger, is in the W. wall of the tower and has engaged Ionic columns beneath a segmental pediment.  The nave clerestory is formed of five pairs of circular windows and the sanctuary E. window, although subdivided into three, comprises a single round arch beneath a broken pediment supported on consoles.  The corners of the building everywhere are rusticated.

 

The interior (illustrated right, looking west, and below left, looking southeast) was remodelled by Godfrey Allen (1891 - 1986), architect and surveyor to St. Paul's Cathedral from 1931-56 (Wikipedia), so it is difficult to know precisely how true it is to the original. The five-bay arcades are carried on double columns of the Tuscan order, carrying little rectangular blocks of entablature which support in turn, the wide, shallow, segmental coffered arches, decorated with a gilded flower in the centre of each panel. Similar arches cross high up between the bays, supporting the nave's tunnel vault, which is penetrated above the bays by the clerestory windows.  The aisles are covered (obviously at a lower level) by plain tunnel vaults. As for the wooden furnishings, Allen erected the stalls that now screen the aisles, in preference to reinstating the erstwhile galleries (The Buildings of England, p. 211), and he was also responsible for the free-standing reredos, the design of which he adapted from that at Wren's Chapel Royal, Hampton Court.

 

Wren built St. Bride's above the remains of a mediaeval church, and the building today still retains a large ancient crypt, some of whose masonry dates back to the early Saxon period.  Cobb considered that before the Great Fire, the original building had been 'among the largest and finest of the mediaeval City churches' (London City Churches, p. 25), so it was fitting that its seventeenth century replacement should also have been one of the most striking.  Nor was the special attention that was given to it confined merely to obvious visual features:  it was, for example, one of a minority of Wren's churches to have been equipped from the outset with an organ (by Renatus Harris (670-1711)) (ibid., p. 102), and even the vestry 'was a very nice room of the Adam period,.. [while the] west vestibule was most attractive with fine doorcases and panelling' (ibid., p. 109).  The total cost of the building - with that incredible degree of precision of which past centuries seemed capable - eventually amounted to 15,203.13s.6d.  This was second only to St. Mary-le-Bow at 15,421.9s.0d (ibid., p. 35)!