An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile                                
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile

                                 
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          St Stephen Walbrook                                          
          brokentaco at the altar                                    
         
It's always a bit of a surprise to find that in so many of the City churches you can spend half an hour or so and be on your own. This isn't true of St Stephen Walbrook, which is something of a mecca for all sorts of interests. The unprepossessing exterior belies what many consider to be Wren's most fiendishly clever interior, and then there is the added controversy of what has happened to it since.

An 11th Century foundation, though rebuilt in the 15th Century on a slightly different site on the other side of the Walbrook. Destroyed in the Great Fire, the Wren workshop rebuilt it 1672-80. Unlike the jolly churchwardens at St Nicholas Cole Abbey, who entertained Wren with dinners and drinks to make their church a priority, the churchwardens here demanded Wren's best work, and rewarded him handsomely with the promise of a personal gift of twenty guineas in a silk purse. That's about five thousand pounds in today's money - not much to a rich man like Wren, perhaps, but it was on top of what he earned for the work, and in any case it seems to have done the trick.

Wayland Young notes that the church is admired by foreigners for a logic rare in English architecture, and by Londoners for the quaintness of a building so dull outside having such lightness and beauty within. The proportions are exquisitely correct, music in stone, with a long view down to the east for all the fact that this is a series of intersecting cubes. Wren's pews were removed in the 19th Century, which only added to the mathematical delight. Many of the craftsmen here would also work on Wren's St Paul's Cathedral.

These days the exterior is rather more exposed than it ever has been since Wren's day. Shops clustered around it, and the main entrance at the west faced into a narrow passage. Now, a vast building site stretches to the west of the church, soon to be filled by some glass and concrete lump, no doubt. The old setting must have accentuated the surprise on entering, to find it so full of rational light. In Wren's day, people must have come in here and thought they were seeing the future.

But the future has caught up with St Stephen Walbrook. Blast damage from the Blitz was repaired, and glass by the great Keith New was installed in the early 1960s. But the church was suffering subsidence, and by the 1970s it was in danger of collapse. So came the controversial reordering under the hands of Lord Palumbo. The church was cleared of all clutter, the 19th Century mosaic floor was removed (indeed, the floor of the church was completely rebuilt), Keith New's glass was sent into exile at Norwich Cathedral, and instead of the previous long vista from the west towards the reredos, a huge central altar, the work of Henry Moore, was plonked down under the dome. It looks pleasingly like a vast, ripe camembert. But of course this completely changes Wren's intended perspective, hence the controversy. There is no doubting the quality of Moore's altar - it is, after all, what many people come to see - or the quality of the restoration as a whole. It is just that the architect was clearly not wearing a What Would Wren Do? bracelet when he designed it.

Simon Knott, December 2015


location: Walbrook EC4N 8BN - 4/059
status: working parish church
access: open Monday to Friday 10am - 4pm
website

St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook Henry Moore altar St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook Henry Moore altar Henry Moore altar mace rest St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook Henry Moore altar font Christopher Wren St Stephen Walbrook St Stephen Walbrook Mansion House 9000

 

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          home   index   map   latest   e-mail   about this site   resources   small print   simonknott.co.uk   norfolkchurches.co.uk   suffolkchurches.co.uk
     
An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile
                               
        An occasional saunter through the churches of the Square Mile