Shits and Giggles and Nicholas Hawksmoor

All toga’d-up with nowhere to go … St.George’s Bloomsbury.

‘A masterpiece of absurdity.’ Horace Walpole on the church of St.George, Bloomsbury.

Anyone familiar with Hogarth’s Gin Lane will have noticed the odd church steeple in the distance, floating above the atrocities occurring in the urban hell below. Hogarth’s landscape is that of the St.Giles rookery, the most feared criminal enclave in Georgian London and beyond (it was seen as especially threatening due to its proximity to the wealthy West End). Hogarth’s vantage point was St.Giles’s church: the distant steeple belongs to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury, about 200 hundred yards to the west. St. George’s was consecrated in 1730 and was, essentially, a place of worship for those who were too frightened to negotiate the great slum to attend services at St.Giles’s. But St. George’s was not much liked when it was new, the criticism mostly to do with its steeple, which was widely considered to be a demented study in royal arse-licking. Hawksmoor’s steeple recreated one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, with additional lions and unicorns, topped out with George 1st in a toga. (St.George’s original lions and unicorns were lost and the ones seen today are replicas by Tim Crawley, installed in 2002.) The steeple became an instant London joke and its inclusion in Gin Lane is a savage indictment of its overblown Hanoverian sentiment.

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, 1751. Straight ahead for St.George’s, mind how you go …

There are a number of reasons to pause here. The first is to consider the achievement of Hawksmoor himself. Nicholas Hawksmoor was an associate of Christopher Wren but his buildings have their own distinct, rather ominous quality, and explicitly evoke the pre-Christian world. For Londoners, Hawksmoor is treasured for his churches: he designed six on his own and contributed to several others, including St.Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the west towers of which are entirely his work. Less comfortable than Wren’s or Gibbs’s or Archer’s, Hawksmoor’s churches are monumental and forbidding: this is especially true of the ones he built in east London. In the last thirty years a sort of cult has grown up around Hawksmoor, with the likes of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd fictionalising the great architect as a ‘shaman’ (ancient Siberian for ‘chancer’), and even – in Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor – a Satanist whose churches cast an evil force upon the city. This sort of inference is a typical product of psychogeography; and whilst it might be tripe as history it was a very successful bit of myth-making that turned Hawksmoor into a pop culture figure. He even has a restaurant chain named after him, although one suspects it was his cultish post-Ackroyd afterlife rather than his buildings that prompted a caterer to indulge in such pompous branding.

Hawksmoor’s church is impossibly mad and authentically English in its absurdity, yet it somehow manages to be utterly beautiful. One can’t imagine a monument as simultaneously noble and ridiculous existing in any other city. For that reason alone, it is fitting that the church’s crypt is now home to the least-likely ecclesiastical annexe one can imagine. In the undercroft of St. George’s all anticipations of Romanesque gloom are dispelled by the church’s principal tenant, The Museum of Comedy, which comprises a theatre, a bar, galleries, and a library of comedy-related material. The juxtaposition of monumental church and comic shrine is, surely, the strangest cultural collision in all of London. Covid-19 notwithstanding, where else can you combine architectural history with stand-up comedy in an atmosphere of civilised drinking?  I have seen some very entertaining shows in the Museum’s tiny theatre, and have had the poignant experience of reviewing fragments of family history in various out-of-print books strewn around the bar. One of them contained a photograph of my parents and myself at the age of seven. There is something unnerving in finding an image of yourself in an out-of-print book – finding one in the crypt of a church is like walking over your own grave. (I have come to associate London’s great churches with memorial services for great comics and performers, namely Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes at St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields; Michael Bentine and Ian Richardson at St.Paul’s Covent Garden; and Thora Hird at Westminster Abbey.  Mike Bentine’s service at Inigo Jones’s Covent Garden church was very moving whereas Ian Richardson’s do at the same venue featured a bravura comic turn from Donald Sinden. Thora Hird was very frail when I saw her at a memorial at the Abbey and at one point I wondered whether she had actually died during the service, which would have upstaged the headlining act. As it turned out, she got her own show at the Abbey the following year.)

One for the road … Thora Hird.

Anyone with a feeling for the classical past will want to pair a visit to the church with a walk up the street to the British Museum*, where you can see statues and friezes from Hawksmoor’s inspiration, the original Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, thoughtfully ‘liberated’ from Turkey by a 19th century British expedition. A deplorable bit of imperial plundering, naturally; but the Mausoleum was a grandiose tomb erected by a functionary of the Persian Empire for his own glorification, so its foothold in London is not entirely inappropriate. (* Room 21, assuming you can get in.)

Class, Sex, Fruit

William Hogarth: ‘Morning’ from ‘The Four Times of Day’ (1738)

As London attempts a return to some sort of normality, Covent Garden’s website offers a handy list of the measures that visitors may expect: social distancing, queuing protocols, hand santiser stations, roads closed to traffic to improve pedestrian access, etc. .The photos on the site are a bit like architects’ visualisations, with figures added for scale. Covid-19 seems to have completed the cauterization of the area, a process that started when the fruit and veg market decamped to distant Nine Elms in the mid- 1970s. It seems astonishing now, but civic functionaries at the GLC intended to flatten the market buildings and replace everything with a giant mall. Public protests eventually forced the GLC to abandon its planned redevelopment; but when the market re-opened in 1980, residents and campaigners felt that they had won a pyrrhic victory. Covent Garden became a Disneyfied retail playground: heritage frosting for the up-market chains, living statues and gaudy stalls peddling trinket-shit to out-of- towners.

Covent Garden is so over-familiar and so despised by Londoners that it is worth remembering what it represents: the only Renaissance square in the city, Inigo Jones’s homage to all things Italian (inspired by the piazza of Livorno) and a gimlet-eyed speculative venture on the part of the Earl of Bedford, who owned the land. It was intended to be an up-market residential development but the Civil War scared off the smarter residents, and by the 18th century it was a full-blown party district, London’s crustiest erogenous zone. Many of the rooms above the piazza’s elegant colonnades were ‘working flats’ leased by prostitutes who used the local drinking shops as places to meet clients. Hogarth’s studio was on the south-eastern side of the piazza, and he remains our best guide to 18th century dissipation, recording several dives for posterity. The first of his series The Four Times of Day (1738) is a winter tableau showing Covent Garden on a freezing morning: a matron en route to church is inconvenienced by a couple of rakes making moves on a pair of malleable wenches. The young blades have clearly spent the night carousing in the dodgy looking shed beneath the portico of St Pauls’s church, ‘Tom King’s coffee house’, an all-night café that served as a place for tarts to pick up trade. Punters also had their pick of several bagnios, bath houses where one could engage private rooms for liaisons with the girls who operated there.

‘The Bagnio’; plate 5 of ‘Marriage a la Mode’.

In the fifth image of his Marriage a la Mode Hogarth sets the fatal fallout of an adulterous liaison in a bedroom at The Turk’s Head, a bagnio in Bow St., wherein a young earl expires after being run-through by his wife’s lover. On the north-eastern side of the piazza you would find another ominous-sounding bagnio, Haddock’s, as well as the Shakespeare Head Tavern, the most notorious of all Covent Garden’s 18th century pick up joints. The Shakespeare’s head waiter was Jack Harris, self-styled ‘Pimp-General to the people of England’, who lent his name to an inventory of tarts, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a London-wide punters’ guide compiled by a succession of writers that was in print for decades. (Harris seems to have been proud of the fact that he made prostitution a bit more upmarket.) A few yards to the east, standing roughly where Drury Lane Theatre is now, was The Rose, a tavern which Hogarth used for a scene in A Rake’s Progress. Here, Hogarth’s anti- hero gets debauched in a chaotic private chamber, surrounded by an assortment of foxy, poxy, gin-spitting girls – their beauty spots masking venereal sores – one of whom is relieving the insensible rake of his watch.

Detail from plate 3 of ‘The Rake’s Progress’; the ‘Rake’ paintings are in the John Soane Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Hogarth seized on the social theatre of Covent Garden: how the licentious nature of the district dissolved class divisions, or threw them into sharp relief. This remained true throughout the 18th century. In August 1776 the debt-ridden son of Lord Milton enjoyed a lengthy supper at the Bedford Tavern, another edgy establishment on the south side of the piazza, in the company of four working girls and a blind fiddler (yes, really). The party continued until three in the morning, at which point young Milton dismissed his entourage and blew his brains out with a pistol. The debts were gambling debts, naturally, incurred in the clubs of St. James’s. Even more tragic and bizarre is the 1779 murder of Martha Ray, singer, and mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, shot outside the Covent Garden Theatre by a demented cleric who was infatuated with her. Perpetrator and victim were taken to the Shakespeare’s Head where an impromptu inquest took place. The killer claimed that he didn’t intend to shoot Martha but ‘a phrensy overcame me’. He was hanged at Tyburn, but the strange thing is that the murderer seems to have attracted more public sympathy than his victim.

The Shakespeare’s Head stood roughly where the crass and ungainly Royal Opera House extension stands now. This 1990s project vandalised a considerable portion of Covent Garden, requiring the demolition of an entire terrace of Georgian houses on Russell St. and putting in its place a lifeless box showcasing shops that one can find anywhere. It is depressing to consider that one of the glories of Covent Garden turned out to be one of the agents of its demise, although in the light of recent events it all seems a bit academic. In the past decade most of the best pubs and bars closed and Covid-19 is succeeding where the GLC failed. You are permitted to consume goods and services if you queue nicely. But there’s no such thing as an antiseptic party, or a socially-distanced debauch. You can’t get slurringly romantic and maintain a two- metre exclusion zone. Welcome to Alphaville, WC2. We are all figures in an architect’s illustration now.

Fights and Festivities at Hockley Hole


From The Annual Register, January 15th 1763:
A man was found in Fleet Ditch standing upright and frozen to death. He had, it seems, unfortunately mistaken his way in the night and slipped into the mud; and being in liquor could not disentangle himself.’

(It seems that this unfortunate was a barber from Bromley, which only goes to show that people from the suburbs have always been coming to grief on nights out ‘up west’.)

A photo – circa 2010 – showing the Coach and Horses pub (now just ‘The Coach’) on Ray Street, reflected in a traffic mirror. In the 18th century the site was known as ‘Hockley Hole’.

The Coach is a recently renovated pub in a curious backwater just west of Farringdon Rd. The pub used to be known as the Coach and Horses and it sits in a strange depression where three roads meet: Ray St., Back Hill and Herbal Hill. You can usually hear running water coming from a grating in the middle of the road: it is the sound of The Fleet, the greatest of all London’s lost rivers, now subsumed within the Ministry of Works’ drains. The section where it runs beneath Ray St. is the only stretch where it maintains its original course from its headwaters in Hampstead all the way to the Thames, where it spits out below Blackfriars Bridge. The Victorian sewer sits 14 feet under Ray Street; when they were laying it they found traces of a Roman pavement and, underneath that, the petrified remains of a mill dam.

Supposedly, an earlier incarnation of the Coach and Horses afforded access to the Fleet from its cellars, providing Georgian fugitives with an escape route to the Thames, or certain death in a fetid sewer, whichever was more likely. This can’t be too easily dismissed as an urban legend, as the sinister house ‘of Jonathan Wild’ was a few yards south of here, and the cellar of that dive definitely connected to the filth of Fleet Ditch. But the Coach is interesting for other reasons, as it occupies the site of Hockley Hole (or Hockley-in-the-Hole), one of the most scabrous entertainment venues in London’s history.

‘Just here, where Back Hill and Ray Street meet, was Hockley Hole, a famous place of entertainment for bull and bear baiting, and other cruel sports that delighted the brutal taste of the eighteenth century. One of the proprietors, named Christopher Preston, fell into his own bear-pit, and was devoured, a form of sport that doubtless did not appeal to him.’ (The Fascination of London: Holborn and Bloomsbury by Sir Walter Besant,1903.)

Hockley Hole was famous for its bull terriers, which were bred and trained on the premises. In 1710 there was ‘… a match to be fought by two dogs, one from Newgate market, against one from Honey-lane market, at a bull … Likewise, a green bull to be baited, which was never baited before; and a bull to be turned loose with fireworks all over him. Also a mad ass to be baited. With a variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting, and a dog to be drawn up with fireworks. To begin exactly at three of the clock.’ On match days, bulls and bears were paraded through the streets to promote the carnage; there’s even an account of a tiger being baited by six dogs, that was a premier attraction in 1715.

Hockley in the Hole was referenced by Ben Jonson and Henry Fielding, and also gets a mention in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. It was swept away in 1756, after which bull-baiting moved to Spitalfields; but its memory lingered, an echo of a more primitive townscape. In Oliver Twist, Dickens has the Artful Dodger leading Oliver this way, en route to Fagin’s headquarters, which he placed a bit further south in Field Lane: ‘… down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole … the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’

In the late 1980s and early 90s this end of Clerkenwell was a media boiler room, outwardly nondescript but bristling with energy; churning yet hidden, like the Fleet. A district of studios and print shops and publishers and dilapidated warehouses hastily re-purposed as temporary art spaces. A sense of something exciting happening, even if you couldn’t quite work out what it was. Opposite The Coach and Horses is a massive Art Deco factory block that was then Holborn Studios, a vast, labyrinthine lair for photographers, designers and printers, with a drinking culture to match. And, in his art scene memoir Lucky Kunst (that’s a pun, in case you weren’t clear), gallerist Gregor Muir identifies an event at The Coach and Horses as a moment of coalescence for the scene associated with the YBAs. One night in 1992, after the opening of a show in a Farringdon warehouse curated by nascent impresario Jay Jopling, the art mob invaded this unfamiliar pub to celebrate. The mood turned sour when someone picked a fight with the Chapman brothers, Jake and Dinos, and a glass was broken over Dinos’s head. Muir asserts that, in the wake of this seemingly trivial pub fight, a new, collective spirit developed that dissolved pre-existing cliques and art world boundaries. ‘Something new was coming round the corner, something larger in scale’.

Jake and Dinos Chapman’s riff on Goya’s ‘Disasters of War‘: an original set of Goya’s lithographs with 21st century elaboration.

So: Georgian cruelty to YBA punch- up, bull baiting to Mother and Child Divided, etc., where does that get us, you ask? If I subscribed to the Ackroyd/Sinclair school of psychogeography, I might conclude with a paragraph devoted to the mysterious, subterranean forces of ‘the terrain’, throw in a mention of Guy Debord and generally risk getting kicked in the head. (A woman of my acquaintance recently observed that seeing ‘psychogeography’ listed under hobbies on a guy’s dating profile was the ultimate turn-off. Thus the term joins ‘spiritual’, ‘salsa’, ‘yoga’ and ‘angling’ as a romantic deal-breaker.) Instead, I leave you with this lovely portrait by the late John Londei. The subject is Clerkenwell mascot ‘Little Jimmy’, posing next to Holborn Studios in 1983. Jimmy was like a wizened Artful Dodger, a relic of old London amidst ‘80s media chancers. His uniqueness and his attitude – a kind of formal defiance – make the Dickens comparison inevitable. But I make no apology because this is one occasion where ‘Dickensian’ may be used with absolute conviction.

Little Jimmy by John Londei.