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English Church Architecture -

London: City of Westminster

 

St. Stephen Walbrook (TQ 327 811)     (August 2014)

 

This is the building generally regarded as Sir Christopher Wren's best church, although at a cost of 7,652 plus an additional 1,838 for the spire, added twenty-five years later and possibly designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (Pevsner), it was certainly not the most expensive since both St. Bride's, Fleet Street and St. Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside cost in excess of 15,000.  Wren and his wife seem to have profited from the contract, however, for Gerald Cobb (London City Churches, Batsford, 1977) records a regular series of dinners to which they were invited by the Vestry in the course of the building's construction, together with a number of distinctly dubious-sounding payments such as one dated 6th May, 1673, recorded as "Paid to ye Survaer Gennerall by order of Vestry for a gratuety to his Lady to incuridg and hast in ye rebuilding ye church twenty ginnes' in a silk purse" !     

 

The main body of the church was erected in 1672-80 and confined within a rectangle with a length to breadth ratio of approximately 7:5. The principal element contained inside this space is a magnificent dome, placed off-centre to the east, which takes up about 50% of the length of the rectangle and almost 70% of the width, yet around this structure, Wren arranged the rest of the church almost as if it were cruciform, with the dome forming the crossing.  Considered in this light, the chancel is one bay in length, the nave, two, and the transepts, half a bay each.  The effect is to produce what Pevsner aptly described as an "ambiguity between two interpretations of the space... the interaction of [the] longitudinal and [the] central" (London: the City Churches, Penguin, 1998) and it is this, above all, that is responsible for the building's interest.

 

Little or nothing of this is apparent outside the building, however, where the visitor's attention is drawn primarily to the northwest tower and spire (seen above left, from the north).  In fact the tower is plain enough, rising in four unremarkable stages to wide, round-arched bell-openings and a balustrade above, so it is little wonder that Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661 - 1736), if it was he, was called upon to add the spire early in the new century.  This was to consist of three rapidly diminishing, square, open stages, the first given its distinctive shape by three Ionic columns set forward at each corner of the square, the second adopting a similar plan but without the columns, and the third forming a little lantern with a circular opening on each side.  To the east of the spire, it is just possible to see from the ground the copper covered done, also with a surmounting lantern, which is the church's most inspired feature, but as with most of Wren's churches, one cannot readily form a conception of the plan of the building by making an external circuit, as it is hemmed in by other buildings to the north and east (as it was at one time to the south also).  Consequently, the model of the church, within (shown above right), is particularly valuable, and shows the high walls of the nave and aisles, lit only by small oval windows above the level of the surrounding buildings, the higher roofs of the transepts, chancel and central nave aisle, reinforcing the longitudinal character of the building, and the precise form of the dome and lantern set inside a raised square, emphasising, in contradistinction, the central interpretation of the plan.  The various adjuncts to the south of the northeast tower, include a porch (Pevsner called it a vestibule) beneath which the visitor is led up steps into a little "entrance apse" at the west end of the nave.

 

It is inside the church that its full glory is revealed.  The dome is supported on eight (somewhat non-standard) Corinthian columns, standing on tall bases and carrying lengths of entablature marking out the corners of the surrounding square and then turning away to the east, west, north and south to delineate the chancel, nave and transepts respectively.  (See the photograph, left, looking towards the west.)  The underside of the dome is coffered in four concentric tiers of trapezoid panels, each decorated with a flower in the centre and with those in the more elaborate second stage, begarlanded with leaves (as illustrated at the foot of the page). The nave and chancel passages are covered by quadripartite groin vaults and the transepts by tunnel vaults, a distinction that bolsters the notion that the church is essentially cruciform.

 

As for wooden furnishings in the church, Cobb singles out for special mention the "small [communion] table of semi-elliptical form with beautifully carved rails of the same shape", the communion rails, and the elaborate, shaped font cover with carved figures.  Monuments include four listed by Rupert Gunnis (Dictionary of British Sculptors: 1660-1851, The Abbey Library, 1951), commemorating:  (i) the Deschamps family (erected 1776) by Oliver Sanders (b. c.1719);  (ii)  the Rev. Thomas Wilson (d. 1784) and Mary, his wife (d. 1772), by John Francis Moore (fl. 1767-88);  (iii) Griffin Stonestreet (d. 1802) by John Bacon the Younger (1777 - 1859);  and (iv) Edward Pryce (d. 1807) by John Malcot the Younger (b. c.1777).  Apparently at one time there was a second monument in the church by John Moore the Younger, unveiled in 1778, commemorating  Mrs. Macauley, author of A History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, but this "was banished from the church shortly afterwards. The reason for its removal, however, had nothing to do with the sculptor, but was due to the extraordinary inscription by the eccentric rector, Thomas Wilson (who had ordered the figure), which gave great offence to his parishioners" (Gunnis).  In fact Wilson and Macauley were cohabiting at the time, following the deaths of both their spouses.