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.)

John Osborne’s Champagne Fridge

John Osborne and Penelope Gilliatt arrive in New York as divorce writs fly.

When I was a young shaver, circa 1983, I was working on a photo shoot in one of those huge ‘wedding cake’ townhouses that characterise Belgravia. In the mid-1960s this particular house had belonged to John Osborne and his wife Penelope Gilliatt, who subjected it to an elaborate sixties makeover: a fabulous monument to mid-century luxe, the decoration supervised by none other than Hugh Casson. In his appallingly entertaining memoir Almost a Gentleman, Osborne writes waspishly of Penelope’s ‘Swedish experiments’; he was particularly vituperative about the cost of the massive copper doors on the ground floor. But the couple’s high style made an impression: their guests at their house parties included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Lord Snowden, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, the Oliviers, assorted aristocrats and intellectuals, plus all the requisite theatrical personnel. Osborne collaborators, such as Nicol Williamson, remember this period as the apex of the playwright’s life.

Johnny has left the building … 31 Chester Square in March 2020.

Two decades on, the big house in Chester Square was a relic of a lost era. The basement and top floor were let out to tenants, but the main rooms were suspended in time, frozen since the day in June 1966 when Osborne walked out on a distraught Gilliatt, leaving her for the actress Jill Bennett. Gilliatt spent most of the rest of her life in New York, returning to London for only short occasional visits. The suite of rooms – comprising the major portion of the house – that Gilliatt retained formed a backdrop to some strange, speculative photography I was doing for a man who lived in the basement. The ground floor was taken up by a huge dining room: an elaborate exercise in formal décor, it featured not one but two genuine Roman marble statues – grave male nudes whose antiquity offered an ironic counterpoint to the layers of dust smothering the table and place settings. (We used one of these statues as a prop in a photo shoot: we hung an alto saxophone round its neck. I can’t remember why, it certainly wasn’t my idea – but people did some strange things in the eighties.) The main living room was on the first floor, an airy space with exquisite appointments: a Castiglione floor lamp, shag-pile sheepskin rugs, vintage stereo system, harpsichord, etc. There is a photograph of Osborne sitting in this room at the time of his play Luther: the playwright’s success made tangible by his surroundings – although in his memoirs he refers to this room as ‘the airport lounge’.

But by 1983 the room and its furnishings – art books forever un-opened, classical LPs permanently in their sleeves – had the poignant aspect of an abandoned theatrical set. Osborne’s diaries record physical fights as Penelope tried to prevent him from leaving, at one point trying to wrestle his suitcase off him as he was going down the staircase. She later made an abortive suicide attempt in the bathroom. The 1980s tenants told tales of Gilliatt’s erratic behaviour and Osborne’s callous attitude to his ex-wife and their daughter; these stories ratified the sense of loss in that house, a mansion haunted by the not-yet-dead. Osborne’s own bilious drama was playing elsewhere.

The unhappy couple: John Osborne and fourth wife Jill Bennett. God knows what’s going to happen when they get home. Frankie Howerd’s not hanging about.

When Osborne and Jill Bennett set up house together they installed a dedicated champagne fridge in the bedroom of their house in Chelsea. They got through so much ‘shampoo’ that they didn’t have to identify it, and the question was merely ‘Would you like some?’ Jill Bennett became Osborne’s fourth wife (there were five in all) but unfortunately, this marriage turned out to be even more volatile than his one with Penelope Gilliatt, and the two leading lights of the theatre fought like cats in a sack. They achieved a spectacular nadir one Sunday in 1973 when, during a drive to Dulwich to have lunch with friends, they had a vicious row that ended with Osborne deliberately ploughing his Mercedes into the Wandsworth roundabout. Osborne had failed to notice that there was police car behind him; he was breathalysed and lost his license for a year. Bennett suffered a fractured ankle – and lost a part in a West End play she’d been rehearsing.

Even Bette Davis is upstaged: Jill Bennett in ‘The Nanny’, directed by Seth Holt for Hammer in 1965.

Gilliatt died of cirrhosis in 1993, at the age of 61. Osborne died the following year, a victim of diabetes derived from a liver complaint, at 65. Jill Bennett died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1990. In his memoir, published a year after his ex-wife’s suicide, Osborne notoriously attacked Bennett in the most gratuitously offensive terms, e.g.: ‘She loathed men and pretended to love women, whom she hated even more. She was at ease only in the company of homosexuals, who she also despised but whose narcissism matched her own.’ Or: ‘Everything about her life had been a pernicious confection, a sham.’ Champagne anyone?