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English Church Architecture -

London: Tower Hamlets

 

Christ Church, Spitalfields (TQ 337 818)     (June 2015)

 

 

Having undergone a major restoration towards the end of the twentieth century, this church reopened at the start of the twenty-first and can now be seen in something approaching its original glory.  Pevsner visited it in 1952 and made no mention of the condition of the building in his "London except the Cities of London and Westminster" volume of The Buildings of England (pub. Penguin), though what he said of the impression created by the W. front remains as true today as then:

"The W. tower rises behind the oddest of porticoes: four giant Tuscan columns, the outer ones carrying a straight entablature, the inner ones a semicircular arch.  It is a development from the Roman motif of St. Alfege's, Greenwich, but bolder and, it cannot be denied, uglier."

 

Christ Church, Spitalfields, was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661 - 1736) and constructed, rather slowly, between 1714 and1729.  It was intended to be one of fifty new churches built following the passing of the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710 but like most government initiatives, the project soon ran seriously over budget and only twelve churches were erected with the money made available, of which no less than eight can be attributed to Hawksmoor. 

 

Christ Church is certainly an arresting building even if, externally at least, it is not an entirely concordant one. Viewed from the west on a sunny day (as illustrated above), down the full length of Brushfield Street, it rises up tall, broad and white, the colour the result of its recently cleaned Portland stone.  The breadth of the tower is deceptive, however, for it is deeply buttressed from the sides, making it appear almost twice as wide as it is deep.  When one reaches the church, entrance is gained up a double flight of steps, after climbing which one finds oneself dwarfed beneath the tall coffered arch referred to by Pevsner above.  (See the photograph, right.)  Somehow the proportions are not quite right, but there is no denying the dramatic effect.  The tower above and behind the portico has two tiers of blank round-headed arches on either side of the round-arched bell-openings, and a projecting moulding supported on consoles, runs all the way round at the springing level.  The lower two-fifths of the spire, of rectangular section, is divided into three short stages by further projecting mouldings, above which it assumes a more conventional broach form.  This is plain now, but a nineteenth century painting shows it was formerly lit by three tiers if lucarnes.   There is little to be said about the south, east and north fronts of the church but the E. window takes Palladian form, seen to best effect inside.

 

The church interior is equally imposing and probably more harmonious.  Again, it is the height of the building that is particularly evident and might even have appeared excessively so in this very large, box-like space when Ewan Christian (1814-95) removed the galleries (since replaced) in 1866.  Christian seems by all accounts to have been an amiable, contented and industrious man who was nonetheless responsible for a "large number of dull churches...none of [which] rise above mediocrity" (Church Builders of the Nineteenth Century by Basil F. L. Clarke, pub. SPCK, 1938) and it has to be confessed that he seems to have done little that was good here.  The nave and aisles are divided by very tall Composite columns rising from square bases covered in wooden panelling, to support individual protruding sections of a highly elaborate entablature, and the aisle bays between are covered by transverse tunnel vaults, coffered in hexagons around the soffits. (See the photographs at the bottom of the page.) Two additional columns in similar style carry the architrave north to south across the east end of the nave, thus demarcating the chancel beyond, and there also is a balancing, broadly similar arrangement to the west (shown right, in the interior view looking west), although here, the architrave breaks off in the centre to form a purely decorative feature either side of the organ.

 

Furnishings in the church are almost all new and will not detain the visitor long.  The pulpit recorded by Pevsner has gone but the two monuments, one either side of the sanctuary, remain - that on the right, commemorating Edward Peck (d. 1736), one of the Commissioners of the Fifty New Churches (church guide), and that on the left, Sir Robert Ladbrooke (d. 1773).  Peck's monument, which Pevsner dismissed in two words as "nothing special", was the work of Thomas Dunn (c. 1676 - 1746), a stonemason "much employed by Nicholas Hawksmoor" and, in Rupert Gunnis's view (Dictionary of British Sculptors, 1660 - 1851, pub. The Abbey Library, 1951) "a statuary... of considerable importance.  He signs two monuments, the first to Edward Peck... at Christ Church, Spitalfields, which has a fine portrait bust; and the second to Edward Colman... at Brent Eleigh, Suffolk, which is a dramatic and important work with its life-sized reclining figure in an elaborate architectural setting".  Ladbrooke's monument, erected in 1794 (church guide), is by the famous John Flaxman (1755 - 1826) and features a full-size standing effigy, dressed in suitable attire befitting a former Lord Mayor of London.