Wednesday, August 3, 2011

St Martin's Lane and Trafalgar Square, London


A new view (1)

For many years I worked in London’s Covent Garden, and day after day I passed Trafalgar Square and the Georgian church of St Martin in the Fields on my way to and from the office. I’d always admired St Martin’s, which is one of the most influential churches in the history of English architecture. It was created in the 1720s by James Gibbs, who in his design tackled headlong the question of how to build a church with both a columned classical portico and a steeple. These two elements, the one Greek or Roman, the other English, didn’t rightly belong together, and Gibbs combined them by simply sticking one behind and above the other. It ought not to work, having a tower emerging out of the top of a Roman portico like this, but it does, somehow, or we are so used to St Martin’s, and the many churches built in imitation of it, that we don’t see any incongruity any more. And the whole thing is now a London landmark, its steeple – with its square tower and octagonal spire and its marvellous rhythm of arches and circles – dominating its corner of the great square.

Having admired this church for years, I’d never photographed it, partly because there seemed to be no adequate viewpoint. Too near, and you can’t get it in the frame; farther away and you end up with a picture full of red buses and dashing pedestrians. Then the other week I was coming out of the National Gallery and at the top of the gallery steps spotted this view, which encompasses the whole façade without letting the buses spoil one’s view of the architecture. Finally I appreciate the National Gallery for something other than the paintings.

13 comments:

Vinogirl said...

It certainly does work.
Great camera angle.

Hels said...

*nod* Those two elements, the Classical temple look and the English medieval tower look, do not belong together! And it probably wouldn't have mattered what Gibbs might have tried to do, to combine the two incompatible parts.

However it was still in the first generation or generation and a half after the Great Fire, and I suppose people wanted the rebuilding programme to be finished. I think Gibbs was both lucky in his timing and clever in his architecture.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VG and Hels: Thanks for your comments from USA and Aus. There are certainly churches modelled on St Martin's in the United States - maybe in Australia too?

The Vintage Knitter said...

We're lucky that this beautiful church wasn't lost to the effects of the WWII blitz, unlike so many other historic buildings in the city.

Philip Wilkinson said...

VK: Indeed we are. There was a bomb that dropped to one side of the church, which caused a bit of damage in the basement, but I think that was it. I have a fascinating, sad book, J M Richards, Bombed Buildings of Britain (1942) which catalogues some of the damage with extraordinary haunting photographs.

bazza said...

It's strange how something one is very familiar with becomes 'invisible'. I have always felt pleasure at seeing St Martins but never really 'saw' it - how odd!
Incidently, I believe that the first German bomb to fall on the east end of London in WW11 destroyed the German church!
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: I know. The persistent invisibility of the familiar is something I campaign against, as it were, but everyone is affected by it, including me. Only yesterday I noticed for the first time a bit of stucco decoration on a building in Cheltenham that I must have walked passed thousands of times.

ChrisP said...

Gibbs himself would never have seen this view, of course - there were buildings down both sides of St Martin's Lane until Trafalgar Square was cleared by Nash in the 1820s.

Peter Ashley said...

In London, I don't think you need worry about a bus or two in shots, as your admirable photograph demonstrates. The thing is they're red, and as much part of the scene as cabs. Red and black, London's trademark colours. It's a pity they're not Routemasters particularly, and I draw the line at the wretched bendy buses, but at least they're not that bilious blue green of 'Arriva'. And oh yes, I love this church too.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, Chris. It was very different round there when Gibbs's church was first built. And of course no one had the advantage of the National Gallery steps until c. 1838.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: Oh, I don't mind a red bus - but I prefer it if it's not obscuring the building. And of course it would have been even better to have seen a Routemaster there. Many were the moving Routemasters I leaped off in my salad days, before elf and safety were thought of.

Ron Combo said...

Always feel humble when I see the marvellous memorial to Edith Cavell just up from that exquisite church. Such impossible bravery.

Gawain said...

The Dutch Reformed Mother Church at Cradock, Eastern Cape, South Africa is based on SMF. Google images has several pictures. It certainly caused me to do a double-take!