Tuesday, September 21, 2010

St Mary Aldermary, London


Wren the Goth

Sir Christopher Wren is probably Britain’s most famous architect. Most people know him as the designer of St Paul’s Cathedral and of the churches that replaced those destroyed during London’s great fire of 1666. Because of this glorious legacy, we think of Wren mainly as a classical architect, a man at home with domes and Corinthian capitals. But Wren was a versatile architect – the rich variety of his London steeples shows that – and he could turn his hand to Gothic too.

St Mary Aldermary (the curious repetitious name is probably an indication that this was originally the oldest of London’s churches dedicated to the Virgin) is Wren’s great essay in the Gothic style – Pevsner thinks that it and St Mary’s Warwick are the two best Gothic churches of the period. It’s not quite the kind of Gothic a medieval master mason would recognize: that’s a plaster vault, not stonework. But with its fan vaulting, flattened arches, and tracery, it’s still a beautiful take on the late Gothic that became fashionable in the 15th century.

This church is also an example of the architect’s ability to adapt to his sites. Nearly all Wren’s city churches are hemmed in by the surrounding building plots, so they often have irregular or unconventional plans. In the case of St Mary Aldermary, the east wall with its big window is not at 90 degrees to the flank walls. The effect is rather odd, but it’s also another example of the endless adaptability of Sir Christopher Wren.

10 comments:

Hels said...

Wouldn't it be interesting to know what St Mary Aldermary looked like before the Great Fire?

If it was already filled with fan vaulting, flattened arches and tracery, then Wren's contribution was less radical. If Wren took the surviving elements of the pre-fire church and changed it utterly, then he really was a very versatile architect.

Vinogirl said...

Your photograph captures the interior of this church perfectly.

bazza said...

I'm not sure if it's my imagination but the building looks slightly out of kilter in your picture. However, it also has a 'new' look to it. I'm not familiar with the outside of this church but the inside is very beautiful.
It's constantly a pleasure to see the variety of subjects in your posts Philip.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: From what I remember, the fan vaulting, etc, was a departure, but I'll have to do some more reading around to check.

Bazza: The out-of-kilter quality is because the chancel is at a slightly odd angle - part of the accommodation to the site that I mention.

Vinogirl: Thanks so much.

ChrisP said...

Pevsner says the use of Gothic was because large amounts of the stonework was reused, but the fan vault must be Wren because it is plaster, and it is not a slavish copy of Gothic precedents. Both Wren and Hawksmoor could do Gothic and the skills were still around because the style had only just died out.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Thanks for your comment. Yes, the fan vault is quite different in its details from the 'original' Gothic vaults in places like King's College Chapel and Bath Abbey.

martin said...

I'm a learner here. Fan vaulting and flattened arches I can recognise,but I need some help with tracery.
Apologies for probably not having paid enough attention in the past.
What the heck-it's a beautiful building and I shall be seeking it out.

Peter Ashley said...

Completely new to me, thankyou.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Martin: All learners are welcome here. Tracery is the architectural term for the stonework in the upper part of a window. Different patterns of stonework were fashionable in different phases of Gothic architecture.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: You'd like it, I'm sure.