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Christ Church, Spitalfields. Nicholas Hawksmoor's baroque masterpiece.

February 20, 2018

Nicholas Hawksmoor's baroque masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields.

 

 

The accolade, London's most important architect, would I think, be won convincingly by Sir Christopher Wren. His contribution was so important to the regeneration of London following the Great Fire. But, one of his protégés, the uber talented Nicholas Hawksmoor arguably runs Wren a close second. Although not as prolific as his mentor, his contribution to London's architectural landscape is no less important. We are fortunate that so much of his work survives albeit that much was damaged by enemy action or by the misguided but well meaning actions of various Victorian architects seeking to make "improvements".

 

All of Hawksmoor's London churches make an immediate visual impact. His super robust lines and muscular use of bold structural form set his work apart. It doesn't take very long for the amateur student of architecture to be confident that they can identify a Hawksmoor. So to Christ Church Spitalfields. This is a genuinely spectacular building and would make into my list of London's top ten and very probably top five churches. The best approach is from Bishopsgate. As you turn into Brushfield Street, there it is! Some 250 metres to the East soars Hawksmoor's exuberant 250 feet tall spire, piercing the skyline. And below, one can pick out the massive shapes of Tuscan columns supporting a spectacular almost Venetian, style arch.

 

I must tear myself away from the magnificence of the architecture to talk a little about the history of the church and surrounding area. Spitalfields, located just outside the old Roman City walls, has since those early times always been associated with the dead. The Romans allocated much of this area to be a substantial cemetery. John Stow writing in 1598, describes how about 20 years earlier, workmen digging clay to make bricks (which incidentally were carted down the nearby Brick Lane) came across significant number of Roman cremation urns. Famously, in the 1990s when the area was again being redeveloped a spectacular lead lined Roman coffin was discovered containing a wealthy Roman lady who was interred with remarkably well preserved artefacts which can now be seen in the Museum of London. 

 

Just across the road from Christ Church is Spitalfields Market, now a bustling hub providing street food and umpteen stalls selling bric a brac slightly uncomfortably located adjacent to high end fashion and accessory stores. This was the site of a medieval monastery, St Mary Spital, and in part of this religious complex was a house of the dead, or charnel house where the bones of the departed were collected and piled high. The remains of this house astoundingly, still survive and can be seen in near by Spital Square.

 

The area was later closely associated with the exiled Huguenot protestants who settled here in the late 17th Century following their ejection from Catholic France. They set up their weaving looms in the nearby streets that still resonate with French sounding names like Fournier and Heneage Streets.  But, they needed somewhere to worship. And this was the trigger for Hawksmoor to build one of the fifty new churches commissioned during the later part of Queen Anne's reign. Christ Church has been described as Hawksmoor's  baroque masterpiece. It's difficult to argue with the accuracy of that description.  Certainly it is one of his earliest projects with work starting in 1714 and  completed in 1729. 

 

In later years the church went through a period of decline and unbelievably, it was closed in 1958 on safety grounds. Happily, thanks to the concerted efforts of the enlightened Friends of Christ Church, a massive program of restoration took place and in 2004 this wonderful space was reopened. As part of the restoration project, the Museum of London undertook a huge, if not grisly, project to record the 1000 or so bodies that had been interred in the crypt. This superb piece of archaeological scholarship has told us much about the lives lived by the people of this fascinating part of London in the 18th and 19th centuries.

 

The crypt is now perhaps one of the loveliest coffee shops in London. The church is open most days and should not be missed. The interior, although restored, is still spectacular enough to make anyone gasp. And I haven't even started to wax lyrical about the superb 18th century Richard Bridge organ. But that will have to wait for another day. If you're ever in the Spitalfields area, go and see Hawksmoor's baroque tour de force. And then go and see it again...and again!

 

Copyright, Richard Ing. Photography by Richard Ing

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