A short-lived addition to Old St Paul’s Cathedral before it burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, the classical-style portico was designed by Inigo Jones as part of makeover King James I ordered him to give the cathedral in the first half of the 17th century.
St Paul’s, which was completed in the early 14th century in the Early English Gothic style (see our post here for more on its earlier history), had fallen into a state of disrepair by the 1620s, thanks in part to a fire caused by lightning which had brought the spire – 489 feet (149 metres) high when built – crashing down through the nave roof in 1561.
The spire wasn’t rebuilt and repair works undertaken to the cathedral roof were apparently shoddy, meaning that by the early 1600s, things were in a parlous state.
Jones started work in the 1620s, cleaning and repairing the massive structure and adding a layer of limestone masonry over the exterior to give the building a more classical look inspired by the temples of ancient Rome he had seen in that city and in Naples and the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.
This was complemented by the grand portico he added to the west front in the 1630s (and which was paid for by King James’ son, King Charles I). Featuring 10 columns across its breadth and four deep (these, it has been suggested, stood about 45 feet tall), it was topped by a frieze of lions’ heads and foliage with plans for a series of statues which some say were to be saints and others kings to be placed along the top (in the end only statues of King Charles I and King James I were ever placed there). The facade also featured turrets at either side.
Work on the repairs came to a halt in 1642 thanks to the Civil War, during which Parliamentarian forces famously used the cathedral’s great nave for stables.
Following the Restoration in 1660, with Jones now dead (he died in 1652), Sir Christopher Wren was invited by King Charles II to restore the grand old building but Sir Christopher proposed it be demolished instead, a decision which lead to an outcry among London’s citizens.
Wren then changed his plans to instead restore the existing build but replace the spire with a dome. His scaffolding was in place around the cathedral when the Great Fire broke out in 1666 and badly damaged the building (although the portico apparently remained standing until 1687-88 when Sir Christopher had it demolished to make way for his new western front).
Interestingly, it is said Wren used blocks from the portico to create the foundations for the building which now stands on the site.
PICTURE: Wenceslaus Hollar’s rendering of Inigo Jones’ West Portico/Wikipedia
For more on the history of St Paul’s Cathedral see Ann Saunders’ St Paul’s Cathedral: 1,400 Years at the Heart of London.