Restoring St. George’s

Peter Campbell looks out of the window of 28 Little Russell Street

The steeple of the church of St George, Bloomsbury is an astonishing confection. A square tower rises from the ground to above roof level. It is topped by a little pedimented temple. The temple supports a stepped pyramid and the pyramid a sacrificial altar. On the altar, like a doll on a wedding cake, is a statue of George I in Roman dress. It was paid for by Mr Huck, brewer to the royal household. The lion and unicorn from the royal arms once played around the base of the pyramid: they were finally removed in a dilapidated state during G.E. Street’s renovation of 1871 – he was probably embarrassed by them in any case. Funds permitting, current restoration work will see them back in place, newly carved.

From the windows of the LRB offices in Little Russell Street we can see much of the church and all of the tower: it rises above the plane trees and the 19th-century vestry house which partly obscure the formidable, blackened north wall of the church. The steeple is both wonderful and absurd, an archaeological speculation tuned to resonate with the drumbeats of Hawksmoor’s hefty keystones and round-arched windows. The temple, pyramid and altar are based on Pliny’s description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The temple, like a bugle call, announces the theme repeated on a larger scale on the south front. There, you find a portico with six Corinthian columns, a wide flight of steps, a porch and a pediment, all in good Roman style – the model this time was one of the temples at Baalbek. The surrounding buildings are higher than they were when the church was built, but King George shows clear above the roof line, just as he does in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. All in all, the design of the church is majestic – original, strange and energetic. But from the office window we could see that weeds had found a foothold in the stonework: it was as though the church was feeling its way towards becoming a Piranesian ruin. This was not to be allowed.

People climbing round the roof, tapping and measuring, were the first sign that restoration was in hand. Then there was the removal of the cadavers. For weeks, a barrier of black plastic sheeting hid the entrance to the vaulted space which runs under the church. We heard quite accidentally – the transfer was done with proper discretion – that bodies were being taken out. A few would have seemed unlikely enough: the actual total of eight hundred was astonishing. The news took on a grim colour from the dark presence of the building; stories of plague pits came to mind. But it turned out that there was no mystery, no sinister revelation to give weight to Peter Ackroyd’s appropriation of Hawksmoor’s buildings as stages for the malevolent and occult. Although the burials had been decent and officially sanctioned, the bodies were there contrary to the intentions of the Commissioners appointed under an Act of 1711 to oversee the building of ‘50 new churches of stone and other proper materials’: they had been advised by both Wren and Vanbrugh that no burials should take place in or around the new buildings.

It was only in 1804 that coffins had begun to pile up. Colin Kerr, the architect overseeing the restoration, explained that the last coffins must have gone in before the Act of 1856 which forbade church burials. The vault was then bricked up. When it was opened, many bodies were found still to be well housed. Most of the coffins had stood the test of time; they were stoutly made: an inner wood coffin was enclosed in a lead-lined outer one and the whole wrapped in studded leather. The contents of those which had mouldered and were in danger of spilling were examined by archaeologists from Oxford. All were transferred with proper ceremony to a burial ground in North London. What can be learned from 200-year-old bones? Perhaps something about top of the range 18th and 19th-century dentistry. Kerr cited evidence of the insertion of false hardwood teeth, and of ‘Waterloo’ teeth – real ones plucked from the dead on the battlefield. These were not paupers.

The building itself hasn’t survived unscathed. Over time, sulphurous rain falls. It washes exposed areas clean, but where it gathers on horizontal or sheltered surfaces it tends to dissolve the stone and redeposit it in grimy, calcareous accretions. The effect London weather has on Portland stone is to some eyes very handsome, as became clear in the arguments fifty years ago about how much grime to wash off St Paul’s. The contrast on a bright day between the dirty-grey south portico of St George’s, which was cleaned decades ago, and the stark black and white of the untouched south face of the tower suggests that the clear picture one now has of the portico’s crisply carved Corinthian capitals came at a price. Kerr intends to do as little as possible to the outside of the building – essentially, to pick off the accretion of black scabs and wash off muck. St George’s will still look like an old building: there is no suggestion that it should be given a course of architectural Botox.

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