The magnificent Church of Nicholas Hawksmoor is best known for the unusual construction at the top, inspired by a wonder of the world
It’s easy to mistake St George’s Church in Bloomsbury Way for a spire with a church hanging below. Nicholas Hawksmoor’s English Baroque masterpiece, consecrated in 1730, was necessarily built in a cramped environment, as there were already buildings on either side. This is why from most of the approaches, and especially the British Museum, all you see is the spire until you get to the church itself.
But what an arrow! It is a building in its own right. His sculptures of lions and unicorns – two of each, all recent recreations of the originals measuring over three meters tall – represent the conflict between the Jacobites and the Crown. Far above them stands a statue of George – not Saint George, the founding father of the church, but King George I, the reigning monarch of the time.
The only statue of this King George in London, it almost looks like a product placement case, as it is very unusual to have a monarch atop a church, let alone one in a Roman toga overlapping an elongated pyramid above a mini -temple (photo below, left). Even Henry VIII did not think about it. Not surprisingly, Church commissioners were reluctant to pay for such frivolous work, but eventually gave in. It is distinctive to say the least.
Most people unknowingly stumble upon the arrow when looking at William Hogarth’s famous apocalyptic painting Gin Lane (1751). It is the image of a city in the process of imploding under the effects of cheap gin, thanks to the promotion of Dutch spirits by Guillaume d’Orange. But it also shows a silver lining in the background – yes, it’s St George’s spire.
Part of the church was built so that the ‘best’ could have a place of worship far from neighboring St Giles, which stood right in the middle of the settlement of which Gin Lane was a part. It was not a convenient place for the cars of the wealthy, which were flocking to the newly fashionable Bloomsbury to linger.
One of the many people who were fascinated by the Hawksmoor Spire was artist JMW Turner. He used his own drawings to illustrate the first perspective lecture he gave at the Royal Academy in January 1811, which dealt with the effect of viewing the arrow from the ground from different angles.
Hawksmoor dug into an escape past with this arrow. It is based on one of the Seven Wonders of the World, King Mausoleum’s Mausoleum at Halicarnassus in Turkey, or at least on the description of Pliny the Elder. The 140-foot-tall building was not finished when Halicarnassus died, but sculptors and masons continued to complete the work. It dominated the surrounding area for around seventeen centuries until a series of earthquakes in the 13th century destroyed it. But it survived in name, as Mausolous became the generic name for grandiose memorials or mausoleums.
What is less well known is that this wonder of the world also lives in a very physical sense just a few hundred yards from Hawksmoor Church. That’s because, by chance or psychogeography – take your pick – huge statues from the mausoleum (above, right) ended up in the British Museum, which opened just 30 years after St George’s.
Main photograph by Tony Hisgett. Photo of the statues of the Mausolus mausoleum by Vic Keegan.
This article is the third of 25 articles written by Vic Keegan on places of historic interest in Holborn, Farringdon, Clerkenwell, Bloomsbury and St Giles, kindly supported by the Central District Alliance Business Improvement District, which serves these areas. The London Policy on “Supported Content” can be read here.