‘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.
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.)
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.)