Lions, unicorns and Hawksmoor’s last church

Hawksmoor-spire-detailThe parish church of St George, Bloomsbury, is a glorious example of English Baroque architecture. It was consecrated on the 28th January 1730 and is the last parish church designed by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. Within 20 years the church with its idiosyncratic spire (stepped like a pyramid) was a well-known building on the London skyline and as such appears in Hogarth’s famous print ‘Gin Lane’.

Hawksmoor St Georges
St George’s, Bloomsbury
Stunning portico
Architect Nicholas Hawksmoor
It has a very grand classical portico, but you have to look up 150 ft to the base of the spire to see the sprawling lions and rearing unicorns (best viewed with binoculars). Each 10ft sculpted animal is not an original as these were removed in 1871. The civic minded Victorians feared that in their decaying state a beast could crash down and cause a fatality. Fortunately, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s original drawings for this striking architectural ornamentation have survived and as part of an extensive programme of renovations in 2006, the sculptor, Tim Crawley, was able to re-create these dramatic pieces. Hawksmoor’s interpretation of the ‘lion and unicorn’ theme has the animals fighting over representations of the English crown.

spire of St Georges Bloomsbury
Spire stepped like a pyramid with St George at the top and the lions and unicorns around the base.
This provocative imagery displayed on a spire topped with St George was considered inappropriate by the Commissioners who initially refused to pay for the work. It is not that the lion and the unicorn used for architectural ornamentation is unusual, but that they are shown fighting over the crown. The lion represents England and the unicorn Scotland as in the traditional heraldic symbolism used from the reign of James I (1603) onwards. The pertinent point here is that at the time of the design and building of St George’s the dust was still settling on the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland that created the United Kingdom.

'Gin Lane' - Hogarth. 1751 Detail taken from print with the St George's spire clearly visible.
‘Gin Lane’ – Hogarth. 1751
Detail taken from print with the St George’s spire clearly visible.
And, of course, there’s the old English/Scottish/British nursery rhyme:

The lion and the unicorn
Were fighting for the crown
The lion beat the unicorn
All around the town.
Some gave them white bread,
And some gave them brown;
Some gave them plum cake
and drummed them out of town.

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