Let there be light: Restoration reveals glory of Christ Church

After 30 years of campaigning, the full majesty of Nicholas Hawksmoor's Baroque masterpiece in Spitalfields has been restored. Michael McCarthy surveys its interior
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The Independent Online

You could say it is one of the things we don't have a lot of in Britain, like revolutions, vineyards or sunshine: the Baroque. That period in architecture when Renaissance classicism went elaborate and ornate saw a great sprouting of fancy churches everywhere in southern Europe, from Bavaria to Sicily, but somehow it was all just a bit too extravagant, too excitable, for the restrained British soul.

You could say it is one of the things we don't have a lot of in Britain, like revolutions, vineyards or sunshine: the Baroque. That period in architecture when Renaissance classicism went elaborate and ornate saw a great sprouting of fancy churches everywhere in southern Europe, from Bavaria to Sicily, but somehow it was all just a bit too extravagant, too excitable, for the restrained British soul.

Yet for a few decades, with Christopher Wren and his successors, the Baroque did briefly flourish in England, and yesterday saw the unveiling of the restored masterpiece of the greatest of Wren's followers, his own apprentice, Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Christ Church, Spitalfields, on the boundary between the City of London and the East End, has been the subject of perhaps the most ambitious and costly programme of restoration of a parish church ever carried out in Britain: they have been putting it right for more than 30 years, at a total cost of more than £10m.

It has been inspired by architectural enthusiasts who felt passionately that one of the finest of Britain's relatively few Baroque monuments could not be allowed to fall into ruin, as was once threatened. In 1956 it was officially declared unsafe and closed; it stayed closed for much of the 1960s and 1970s.

Some of Britain's most influential voices were raised in protest: John Betjeman, much-loved poet and church architecture buff, declared that it was a building on whose behalf he would go to the stake. But even more effective were local people.

For Christ Church is situated where one of London's biggest architectural preservation battles was fought. Spitalfields, between Liverpool Street on the rich side and Brick Lane on the poor, contains a network of early Georgian streets that from the 1970s were constantly threatened with demolition, but people who bought the houses and restored them banded together and eventually managed to fend the developers off.

In 1976 a group of them were instrumental in forming the Friends of Christ Church, which has been the group driving the restoration: it was eventually made possible by two substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the first in 1996 of £2.4m to repair the crumbling exterior, and the second of £4.5m, awarded in 2002, to restore the inside of the church, which Victorian architects had substantially altered.

But now it is finished, and after it was formally reopened yesterday by the Bishop of London, Dr Richard Chartres, anybody entering this quite astonishing temple might well feel that the time and the money have been well spent.

The original 1714 specification said it was to have an "awe-full majesty", and the huge cathedral-like scale of the interior, combined with the harmonious simplicity of its great columns and arches, does indeed give Christ Church a monumental grandeur which is immediately affecting. But there is something more than that: the light.

This is a church that glows on the inside. The original dark oak panelling has been restored to the base of the columns of the nave, and the oak-panelled galleries have been restored at a slightly higher level along them, so that the white stone columns themselves stand out and seem to shine, helped by the extra windows and other light sources that the restoration has opened up.

"We hope that the church now looks as Hawksmoor designed it," said Red Mason, the architect principally responsible for the project.

Nicholas Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire, probably in 1661, and although little is known of his early life, by the age of 18 he was employed as clerk to Sir Christopher Wren, who was then the immensely powerful Surveyor of the King's Works for Charles II.

In the succeeding decades as he learnt his craft Hawksmoor took over more and more responsibility for Wren's projects, and by 1700 was a major architect in his own right, eventually working on Kensington and Blenheim Palaces, Greenwich Hospital and Castle Howard in Yorkshire, often together with his friend and fellow architect Sir John Vanbrugh.

Christ Church was one of six London churches Hawksmoor designed, mainly for what in the early 18th century were suburban parishes outside the city. The commissions came about because after Wren had completed the rebuilding of all 52 medieval churches destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, the Church of England turned its attention to what it called the "out-parishes", where the state of Godliness, it felt, left much to be desired.

In 1711 an Act of Parliament was passed prescribing the building of 50 new churches in the suburbs (although in the event only 12 were built), and between 1712 and 1731 Hawksmoor built his half-dozen: they were St Alfege's, Greenwich; St George in the East, Wapping; St Anne's, Limehouse; St George, Bloomsbury; St Mary Woolnooth in the City (the sole one on the site of a medieval church); and Christ Church.

As a group they form what is perhaps our most powerful statement of the Baroque, fascinating not least because their design may not seem to epitomise a church to many Britons, who instinctively think of Christian ecclesiastical architecture as inseparable from the pointed arch of the medieval Gothic, and its countless Victorian imitations.

Hawksmoor's arches are rigorously rounded, and his structures are supported by the entablatures (horizontal beams) of classical Greece rather than the flying buttresses of medieval France and England, although his own sense of restraint never leads him into the extravagant ornamentation of the Baroque on continental Europe.

Christ Church itself, inspiring though its interior is to anyone entering, definitely seems different from the outside, with its vast broad spire rising out of a classical pillared portico

Mr Mason knows Christ Church better than anyone. Now 62, he has worked on restoring the fabric of the building for nearly 30 years, as a member of both firms of consultant architects who have been employed on it. His big challenge has been to work out exactly how the church looked on the inside before the major alterations that were carried out in the 1860s by the Victorian commercial architect Ewan Christian.

Under Christian's supervision, the wood-panelled galleries that lined the sides of the church were removed, as were the wooden box pews, and two new galleries were built at one end of the nave next to the organ; the lower aisle windows were blocked off.

Mr Mason went back to the original 18th-century craftsmen's bills, preserved in Church of England archives, to discover exactly what had been designed and built first time around, and is confident that he has found it.

"The closer you get to the original, the closer you get to the truth," he said. "And when we have done things, we have nearly always been taken aback, in the event, by what we have seen. You look at the drawings and you think, we've got it right, so let's do it, and you do it, but the reality of the building is always something more than you could imagine from the drawings; the change is immense."

The galleries that the Victorians installed have gone, opening up the west end of the church and providing much more light, and further light has come from the reopened side aisle windows. The new Portland stone floor seems to add to the glow.

The restorers debated long and hard about restoring the box pews, but in the end decided against it as the large nave has to remain open for concerts and other events: this is going to be a working church, serving the local community, that for future maintenance will have to pay its own way.

The evangelical congregation, which numbers about 120 and is growing, once had to meet in another church, and for the past two years has been meeting in Christ Church's underground crypt: last Sunday members attended the first service in the restored nave, led by the minister, the Rev Andy Rider.

They greatly approve of the restoration. Standing in the monumental, glowing interior yesterday, it felt as though it would be hard for almost anyone to disapprove; and certainly Mr Mason hopes that Hawksmoor himself would be content with the renewed harmony of shape and structure in his Baroque masterpiece.

"As we've restored things, the church has rebalanced," he said. He smiled. "It's like someone getting their figure back. There's a sense of dignity returning."


By Tim Walker

Nicholas Hawksmoor designed six London churches, including Christ Church in Spitalfields. The others are:

St Alfege's, Greenwich (1712-14)

Named after an Archbishop of Canterbury, Alfege's is built on the spot where marauding Vikings murdered the cleric in 1012. Construction was completed in 1714, making this the earliest of Hawksmoor's churches. It was a replacement for a medieval church on the same site, whose roof collapsed in 1711.

St Anne's, Limehouse (1714-24)

In the past, St Anne's was a familiar landmark for ships making their way to Limehouse docks. Though the church was gutted by fire in 1850, the structure survived, and even warranted a mention in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend.

St George in the East, Wapping (1714-29)

St George in the East played host to raucous anti-Catholic demonstrations in 1860. The police were called in to restore order after congregations threw fruit at the rector, accompanied by boisterous renditions of Rule Britannia.

St George, Bloomsbury (1716-27)

Currently in the throes of a major restoration, the steeple of St George's is modelled on Pliny's description of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - the tomb of Mausolus at Halicarnassus. Hawksmoor's version, however, is capped by a statue of George I, and was depicted by Hogarth in a well-known sketch, Gin Lane.

St Mary Woolnoth, Lombard Street, City of London (1716-24)

The only Hawksmoor church in the City of London, St Mary Woolnoth was built on the site of a Roman temple, and now sits above Bank tube station. When the station was built at the turn of the 20th century, St Mary's vaults were emptied and the displaced dead removed to Ilford.