Treasures of London – The Steeple of St George’s Bloomsbury…

September 15, 2018

Adorned with giant beasts and topped with a statue of King George I, the steeple of this 18th century Nicholas Hawksmoor-designed English Baroque church is a sight to behold.

The unusual spire, which has topped the church since it was completed in 1731, is stepped like a pyramid and was apparently inspired by Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World).

At its base can be seen four heraldic creatures – two 10 foot tall lions and two similarly-sized unicorns. They’re actually recreations of the originals by sculptor Tim Crawley based on drawings by Hawksmoor. The originals were removed – and subsequently lost – in 1870 amid fears they were about to topple off.

It’s suggested that lions and unicorns – which look as if they are in conflict over the crown in the middle – symbolise the tussle for the Crown as seen in the several Jacobite risings which took place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

The statue on top has King George I dressed in Roman attire and standing on an altar as a symbol of St George – as clear a PR exercise as you’ll find on a steeple. It even featured in a verse by Horace Walpole:

“When Henry VIII left the Pope in the lurch,
The Protestants made him the head of the church,
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people
Instead of the church, made him head of the steeple.”

The steeple did prove controversial when it was completed – the church commissioners initially refused to pay Hawksmoor, apparently deeming the spire too frivolous for such a serious building. But it was soon recognised as an important part of the landscape – it can be seen in the background of William Hogarth’s 1751 engraving Gin Lane.

In the mid-Noughties, the church and steeple, which had fallen into a state of dishevelment and was apparently on the verge of closure, underwent a major renovation. Funded by American Paul Mellon and the Heritage Lottery Fund, it saw the long-lost (albeit recreated) beasts returned to their place on the steeple (the project was recorded in detail by Harris Digital).

PICTURE: Right – Amanda Slater (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 – image cropped and straightened); Below – Londres Avanzado (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 – image cropped and lightened).

 

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