The Beasts of Bloomsbury

The Restoration of the Lion and Unicorn Sculptures of St George's, Bloomsbury

Tim Crawley

 

St George's neo-classical portico with the stepped church tower, which is topped by a statue of George I in Roman dress, visible in the background  
The south front, before restoration  

For many years the architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor was forgotten and neglected, as the refined Palladian classical style succeeded his vigorous, monumental, idiosyncratic and very English Baroque style. For the most of the 20th century his London churches decayed. St George in the East End was bombed and the interior was gutted and lost. Christ Church, Spitalfields came close to demolition, but has now been gloriously restored. It is now the turn of St George’s, Bloomsbury (1716-31) to be brought back from the brink. Selected by the World Monuments Fund as one of the hundred most endangered sites of global architectural significance, money has been raised for its restoration, principally as a result of a generous initial donation by the Paul Mellon Fund which has funded the essential structural repairs. But perhaps the most remarkable and unusual aspect of the restoration is the replacement of the four monumental sculptures that originally clustered around the base of the spire.

Hawksmoor is known never to have visited the great classical sites, but he was a keen antiquarian and his work is peppered with references to famous Greek and Roman monuments. At St George’s for instance, the imposing hexastyle portico derives from the Roman temple at Baalbeck. The spire is believed to be inspired by the mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The basic form of this monument, a stepped pyramidal structure surrounded and crowned by sculpture, fascinated Hawksmoor as several surviving sketches from his office prove. At St George’s he was able to realise these fantasies, although records show that the church commissioners of the time did not approve.

The apex of the stepped spire has a statue of George I in the guise of an emperor, standing on a Roman altar. At the base of the spire on each corner were sculptures of lions and unicorns, in reference to the supporters of the arms of England. But these were not conventional heraldic beasts. All the evidence that remains indicate that they were dynamically posed; the lions descending the spire, the unicorns ascending. A clue to the significance of this is in the well known nursery rhyme, 'The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the Crown'. This is a fragment of a popular song of the early 18th century which refers to the competing interests struggling for the crown of the United Kingdom at the time of the Jacobite rebellion and the Hanoverian succession.

These extraordinary sculptures were removed in the restoration of the church by Street in 1870, supposedly because they had become unsafe. Then they were forgotten and lost. It was a bold decision to replace the sculptures as part of the current restoration, and presented considerable challenges.

The overall height of the beasts is recorded in the surviving building accounts as 10ft 3in (3.1 metres). Given their scale, how could their considerable bulk be safely returned to the building? Would the added weight create structural problems? How were the sculptures designed originally? In all probability the carvings were executed in situ, as the stone was built into the spire, so what techniques could be used to replace them? All these questions and more needed answers before the decision to go forward with the project could be finalised.

The author at work on site Model of lion's head and upper body with highly detailed musculature and flowing mane Ink drawing labelled 'St George Bloomsbury'
Left: Tim Crawley at work on a lion’s head, centre: scale model in clay of a lion’s head, and right: drawing of the stepped steeple, which is surmounted by a statue of George I in Roman attire

The first enquiry for this commission was sent out to potential candidates in October 2002, and so work has continued on the project for three years so far. The design process was necessarily painstaking and meticulous, going through many stages before the stone carving could actually start a year ago. An initial measured survey was taken from a temporary access scaffold and from this data working drawings were produced from which the accurate working models could be completed. The accuracy of this survey was critical, given that the sculptures had to be ‘pre-fabricated’ in the workshop. One of the biggest challenges has been to confidently produce all the work in advance, so that when the fixing finally commenced, the sculpture would accurately fit into the deeply weathered structure of the spire.

This stage of the project has finally arrived. The massive scaffolding necessitated by the heavy stonework is complete. The monumental jigsaw of the sculpture consisting of 57 stones, some weighing up to 1½ tons, is making the journey from the Cambridge workshops down to London and up the 120 foot tower. By spring next year Hawksmoor’s fantastic beasts will have returned to Bloomsbury after an absence of nearly 140 years. The final act of completion will be to screw home the metre-long beaten copper and gilded unicorn’s horns, and London will have a new and unusual landmark.

 

 

 

Historic Churches, 2005

Author

TIM CRAWLEY is an architectural sculptor and director of Fairhaven of Anglesey Abbey Ltd.

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