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.)

Influential as the church was, one must admit that it is somewhat a building out of time, a bit out of step–but as such, indicative of Gibbs’ relationship with the broader developments in British architecture during his lifetime.  Even more troubling than his Catholicism (he originally went to Rome to study for the priesthood, not as part of an architectural Grand Tour) was his ardent dedication to Italian Baroque architecture, as he had studied in Rome with Carlo Fontana.  His style was certainly in keeping with his own conservative politics, but ran up against the Whigs’ Anglo-Palladianism that would sort of steal the show in the decades that Gibbs built his most important works.  (As a grace, he died the year before Stuart and Revett returned from Athens, which would have an even more decisive effect on the turn of British design away from the whooshy drama that thrilled Gibbs.)  Baroque as it is, Gibbs’ design for St. Martin’s is still a far cry from his original intention for a wildly Baroque design based on a round plan with a dome.  Had this been built it would have been hands-down one of the knock-out churches in London (home to plenty of knock-outs as it is).  But the client tut-tutted the idea and the more conservative boxy plan was built.  Gibbs would have to wait a few more years to have a go at a round building, and the result is the super-spectacular Radcliffe Camera in Oxford (1737),  surely one of the great buildings in all of England, and the Universe.

Image: mid-eighteenth-century view of the Royal Mews with St. Marin-in-the-Fields in the background (from this site)


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§ 2 Responses to March 19: second-best but still first-rate

  • Royce Earnest says:

    Your stories confirm that architectural history is an interesting tale, or is it because I was already convinced. Maybe some other day will allow more on the Baptists.

  • Clio says:

    Clio wonders what went wrong with those Baptists.

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