Saturday, September 26, 2009

Old St Pancras Churchyard, London


Soane box

Round the back of the refurbished and extended St Pancras station lies a secluded garden made up of the Old St Giles' burial ground and the churchyard of St Pancras, a quiet spot shaded by plane trees. Apart from two men sweeping leaves I had the place to myself, and I was certainly the only person there interested in making a pilgrimage to this small but oddly influential English building, the mausoleum of the great architect Sir John Soane and his family.

It's a typical Soane structure in its very personal Classicism, its handling of spaces and layers, its shallow dome, and its symbolism. His wife having died in 1815, Soane conceived this building in the following year. It is a series of layers. Innermost is a large chunk of Carrara marble; this is roofed by a small marble structure consisting of four Ionic columns and a canopy; this in turn is covered by a larger structure in Portland stone with a shallow dome; the whole is surrounded by a low wall. The dome's finial is a pine cone (a Classical symbol of renewal) surrounded by a snake swallowing its tail (symbolizing eternity).

The monument is a fascinating bringing-outdoors of several of Soane's interior obsessions – domes, narrow spaces, those segmental slivers beneath the dome, the symbolic language, and so on. It's arresting, seems simple until you examine the careful and complex art with which it's put together, is completely non-Christian, and very typical of its architect's vision. Soane, though, deeply in mourning for his wife and troubled by domestic arrangements and disputes over her effects, found it hard to visit the monument once it was up.

Architectural pilgrims, however, have no such qualms. No doubt one of the most admiring was Giles Gilbert Scott, whose classic design for the red telephone box seems to have been heavily influenced by the monument. How odd that this rarified and personal design should have inspired the creation of something so universal, that the language of mourning should be translated into a symbol of communication. Such are the anxieties of architectural influence, and such are their satisfactions.

9 comments:

Ron Combo said...

Crikey Wilko, that is so revelational - thank you!

Wartime Housewife said...

Do you take these photos yourself? - they're smashing

James said...

Old churchyards can be wondeful places to take pictures as you have shown in this post.

Peter Ashley said...

Fantastic. Part of this old churchyard was in the way of the construction of the Midland Railway, and the careful removal of coffins was required. It was superintended by a young Thomas Hardy who worked in the architect's office.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you all.

Wartime Housewife: Yes, the photographs are all my own work. The dappled shade of the London plane trees made this one for me, though.

Peter: I'd forgotten about the Hardy story. This experience must have shaped his sensibility.

ChrisP said...

St Pancras Old Church is one of my favourite graveyards. People rightly tend to focus on the Soane monument but other graves include Mary Woolstonecraft and William Godwin, JC Bach (the 'London Bach'), John Flaxman the sculptor and a teacher that was immortalised by Dickens as Mr Gradgrind. Percy Bysshe and Mary plotted their elopement while visiting her mother's grave.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: I knew about most of these graves, but had no idea that J C Bach was buried there. Thanks for pointing this out. I'll have to go back now.

ChrisP said...

And I have just discovered (at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=10353456) that Jonathan Wild, self-styled 'thief-taker general' but actually London's top fence, was buried there after his execution, but within days his body was stolen by resurrection men. His skeleton is on display at the Hunterian to this day, apparently.

Thud said...

You never cease to amaze and educate...Ta!