March 19: second-best but still first-rate
2012/03/19 § 2 Comments
On this day in 1722 the foundation stone for St. Martin-in-the-fields was laid.
One of the two most famous built works by James Gibbs (1682-1754) (but not his best), the church is an interesting specimen of a building that can grow to have great fame in spite of the fact that (1) it was not what the architect really wanted, (2) did not impress its contemporaries very much and (3) was subject to its site being vastly changed in its later life.
One of the major quirks in the building’s history is that you probably think of it as being designed to hang on to one corner of the wonky shape of Trafalgar Square. But all that space was, at the time, occupied by the Royal Mews, so Gibbs designed the church on a site stuck in a tight spot, as you can see in the image above. It was about a hundred years later that the Mews was cleared to make the square, raise the column, build the museum and the rest of it. Fine as the church is, it did not set his immediate contemporaries on fire. But its image, as circulated in Gibbs’ great A Book of Architecture (1728), had a profound impact on American church design–mostly of the Episcopal tradition, but even the Baptists (even the Baptists!) liked it. (Clio regrets that Baptists, generally speaking, have given up on fancy aesthetics, but now is neither the time nor the place for that.)
Image: mid-eighteenth-century view of the Royal Mews with St. Marin-in-the-Fields in the background (from this site)