Where’s London’s oldest…synagogue?

PICTURE: John Salmon (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Actually the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the entire UK, the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London was built in 1701.


The synagogue entrance. PICTURE: Edwardx (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The synagogue has historical ties to the city’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, known as Sephardic Jews, which first started meeting together in a small synagogue in Creechurch Lane in 1657 after it become possible for Jews to openly practice their religion under the rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Increasing numbers in the community soon meant a larger premises was required and a committee was formed which signed a contract with Quaker builder Joseph Avis in February, 1699, to build a larger premises (tradition holds that Avis returned the money he made on the job to the community, saying he would not profit from building a house of God). In June that same year, the community leased a tract of land at Plough Yard, Bevis Marks, on which the new building would be built. Construction commenced soon after.

The property’s design is said to emulate, at least in part, that of the 1675 Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam (it’s also thought the design was influenced by the works of Sir Christopher Wren). There’s also a story that the building included an oak beam from one of the Royal Navy’s ships presented by Queen Anne.

The rectangular building, which features three galleries inside, was eventually completed and dedicated in September, 1701.

The roof of the now Grade 1-listed building was replaced following a fire in 1738 and the synagogue only suffered minor damage during the Blitz. It also suffered some collateral damage from the IRA bombing in 1992 and the 1993 Bishopsgate bombing but remains mostly intact.

Sermons at Bevis Marks were in Portuguese until 1833 when they changed to English.

Features inside include an oak Renaissance-style ark containing the Torah scroll which, painted to resemble coloured Italian marble, is located at the centre of the eastern wall. There are also seven hanging brass candelabra which symbolise the seven days of the week. The largest, which hangs in the centre of the synagogue – represents the Sabbath and was donated by the community of the Great Synagogue of Amsterdam. There are also 10 large brass candlesticks representing the Ten Commandments. While the upright oak seats are said to “reflect the Puritanism of 17th century England”, the backless oak benches at the back are the original seats which were brought from the Creechurch Lane premises.

Twice Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s 1804 birth is recorded in the register but after his father had a falling out with the synagogue officials, Disraeli was in 1817 baptised at St Andrew’s Holborn.

The synagogue is temporarily closed to visitors and tour groups. For more information, head to www.sephardi.org.uk/bevis-marks/visit-bevis-marks/.

Around London – Open House London; Magna Carta on display; Fashion Week photography; and, Henry Moore returns to Greenwich…

It’s Open House London weekend again and there’s scores of properties across the city which will be opening their doors to allow the curious a rare glimpse inside. The properties which will be open include architect’s homes and cutting edge housing as well as historic city landmarks, landscape projects and government buildings (including the Foreign Office & India Office – pictured). Other highlights of this year’s event – conducted under the theme of ‘The Liveable City’ –  include a night hike, a festival aimed at kids and families, talks, walks and cycle tours and competitions. Among the buildings flinging their doors wide are Lambeth Palace, home of the Archbishop of Canterbury, livery company halls, the newly reopened St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City. Most properties can simply be visited on a first come, first in basis but some do require advance booking so check before you go. Open House London was first started 19 years ago and has since spread to many other cities around the world including New York, Jerusalem and Helsinki. For more information and to purchase an online guide, see www.londonopenhouse.org. PICTURE: (c) Nick Woodford.

• King Edward I’s Magna Carta will go on show at the Guildhall Art Gallery in the City this weekend, presenting a rare opportunity to see this pivotal document. The City of London Corporations 1297 Magna Carta – regarded as one of the finest 13th century copies – will be on display in the Roman Amphitheatre during Open House London. The document features King Edward I’s seal and the original writ to the Sheriffs of London ordered that the charter be promulgated within the City. Admission over the weekend is free. For more see, www.guildhallartgallery.cityoflondon.gov.uk/gag/

 

The Museum of London has launched an online collection of early Twentieth century fashion photographs to coincide with London Fashion Week. The more than 3,000 glass negative plates come from the collection of Bassano Limited, founded by Italian-born Alexander B. Bassano, and were taken between 1912 and 1945. They record a wide range of fashions as well as designers and retailers and can be accessed via the Museum’s Collections online web portal. Meanwhile, the museum is hosting it’s first ever professional catwalk show on Friday night. It features the works of Christopher Raeburn. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

A Henry Moore sculpture, Large Standing Figure: Knife Edge, has been returned to Greenwich Park, more than four years after it was removed. The almost five metres tall sculpture, made by Moore in 1976, was originally placed in the park in 1979 but was removed for conservation in early 2007 before joining a Moore exhibition at Kew Gardens and then forming part of the Henry Moore display at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The bronze, on loan from The Henry Moore Foundation for two years, has now been returned to its original location between The Avenue and Croom’s Hill Gate.