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6

BCD SPECIAL REPORT ON

HISTORIC CHURCHES

23

RD ANNUAL EDITION

in 1957, looking out over St Michael’s

– together they have become a potent

symbol of the act of reconciliation.

But there is a place for reconstruction.

St George’s, Bloomsbury is a Nicholas

Hawksmoor masterpiece. Completed

in 1731, the rich iconography of its

decoration, both inside and out, makes

it one of the more eccentric churches

in London. Hogarth pictures it in the

background of ‘Gin Lane’, with George I

atop a column looking down on the

depravities below. Part of the original

design included two lions chasing two

unicorns around the base of the spire

– a reference to the Hanoverian and

Jacobite struggle for the Crown in the

early 18th century. Unfortunately, these

were removed by George Edmund Street

in 1871, purportedly on the grounds of

health and safety (

plus

ç

a change

), but

in reality because they were ‘doubtful

ornaments’ and too flippant for the High

Church tastes of the time. They were

replaced by more modest ‘knots of cloth’.

By the beginning of this century

St George’s, Bloomsbury was in a

dreadful state – exterior and interior

stonework was in desperate need

of repair and the interior space had

been modified to such an extent that

the original scheme was lost, with no

discernible benefit to the congregation.

From 2002 World Monuments Fund

Britain worked with a variety of

partners to reverse the decline, and to

restore Hawksmoor’s original vision.

Part of that restoration was to remove

Street’s dull swags and re-introduce the

lions and unicorns. These completely

21st-century reconstructions were based

on the best research and executed by

the best craftspeople. But they are new:

modern interventions on an 18th-century

spire. Do they improve the church?

Absolutely, they return something of

its eccentric character, and they are

authentic to Hawksmoor’s original.

Reconstruction is invariably a large

tin marked ‘Worms. Do not open’. Which

period of a building’s history are you

trying to revive? Do you keep the bullet-

holes, or return the masonry to a pristine,

pre-conflict state? If the latter, are you

sweeping history under the carpet, or

restoring beauty? For me, Coventry and

St George’s, Bloomsbury each offer a

glimpse of how to get either approach

right, being largely about the power

of confident curation, based on a true

understanding of the spirit of a building.

To this I’d add a final observation,

which applies to conservation,

reconstruction or even new build: don’t

break the spell. Returning to Westminster

Abbey, the dean and chapter wish to

allow public access to the triforium level,

giving more people a chance to stare

down the nave in that classic coronation

shot. To do this requires access and

a new lift. One approach might have

been to introduce a contemporary

design to the abbey – a bold statement

of 21st-century intent and a piece of

architecture clearly differentiating old

and new. But the danger is that the magic

will be lost: a jarring note that breaks

the spell of the 14th-century building,

because it competes or dominates.

Thankfully, architect Ptolemy Dean

will build a slender gothic tower, hidden

in the folds of the building behind Poet’s

Corner. It is new, but it fits with the

character of the abbey, complementing

rather than competing. This is not a peon

against new architecture, but it is a cry

for an approach that respects and builds

on the character and distinctiveness

of the original building. If part of that

character favours bold introduction and

new architecture of whatever century,

then crack on, but if a building is largely

medieval, then don’t break the spell…

JOHN DARLINGTON

is executive director

of World Monuments Fund Britain (www.

wmf.org.uk). WMFB is part of the World

Monuments Fund, a charity that seeks to

protect extraordinary historic buildings

and monuments across the globe, from the

ancient to the 21st century.

Modern intervention: the lion and unicorn sculptures on the 18th-century spire of St George’s, Bloomsbury

are modern reproductions of pieces which were removed in 1871. Although the designs were based on thorough

research and executed by highly skilled craftspeople, any attempt to restore a historic building to an earlier

point in its history is likely to attract controversy. (Photo: John Darlington)