Saintly symbol of the city

St Paul's - 'A More Beautiful City'
December 17, 2004

St Paul's is much more than a place of worship, says Simon Thurley

St Paul's Cathedral was founded in 604, making it, and its diocese, 1,400 years old this year. The cathedral and the Guildhall Art Gallery have organised a number of events to celebrate this remarkable fact and, of these, the most important, which will certainly be the most enduring, is this superb history of the cathedral and the life within it. Derek Keene, the book's editor, is one of the most distinguished historians of London, and indeed of urbanism. With the benefit of his guiding hand, the book is far more than merely an architectural or even institutional history of the cathedral; it is a social history, or, as Peter Ackroyd might say, it is the biography of the cathedral.

The very first page arrested my attention with a fact never properly absorbed. This church is known, and always has been, by its dedication alone. It is called simply "St Paul's" not "London Cathedral", unlike Salisbury Cathedral, Canterbury Cathedral or any other English cathedral.

The building is so associated with the capital city, so firmly engraved on our collective national consciousness, that it stands alone as a saint's name.

This is perhaps the theme of the book, if it has one: St Paul's as a national icon, the focus of national mourning and celebration, a symbol of hope in times of trouble and of triumph in times of victory. It was always thus, whether the cathedral was the setting for the celebration for the restoration of Henry III's rule in 1266, the funeral of the Duke of Wellington in 1852, the London Blitz in 1940-41 or the Falklands War victory service in 1982.

This is a big subject, and the book is almost 550 pages long, in a large format and printed on thick glossy paper. There is no way to read such a tome other than sitting at a table, which sadly will make it less likely to be read for pure pleasure. This is a shame, for almost all of the 43 contributors write in a lively style that makes what could be dry history a good read.

The first part is a straight run at the history of the cathedral, which sandwiches the fairly familiar story of Sir Christopher Wren's building of the 17th century between the story of Old St Paul's and the alterations of the 19th century. Here is where much of the book's chronological novelty lies. We learn of the nature and construction of the original Gothic building in the context of the city, crown and nation. Set out over a few pages are all the surviving images of the old church, and they make a crucial point. Old St Paul's was huge. Its spire, finally completed in the 1320s, was probably the tallest in Europe. It was certainly the tallest structure to have been built in London before 1964. The main church was also surrounded by a precinct with walls and gates, two parish churches, a detached belfry and St Paul's Cross, a focal point for public declarations.

This last was an open space, one of the few in the city, which became a crucial gathering point for civic discussions and debates. So, long before Wren's building, St Paul's occupied a vast amount of vertical and horizontal space and was the pivot round which the city turned in terms of landscape.

The story of the Great Fire of 1666 and Wren's rebuilding of today's cathedral is put in the shade by the new material that precedes and follows it. What happened to the cathedral after Wren's death is gripping. There are far too many aspects to cover adequately in a review. Striking, at least for me, is the way in which St Paul's became the repository of monuments to heroes, which distinguished it from the royal mausoleum at Westminster Abbey. The trend started during the Napoleonic Wars when the Government embarked on a policy of celebrating military heroes in marble.

It commissioned 33 monuments in all, of which 31 were erected in St Paul's.

A national Valhalla was created at taxpayers' expense. So acute was official awareness of the policy that in 1837 the Government insisted that the cathedral drop its entrance fee to allow the people to see the monuments to their heroes for which they had paid.

What comes clearly through 1,400 years of history is that the cathedral was the state's principal church; the various phases of its development were as often as not driven by the Government, whether at the behest of a monarch or a prime minister. The condition of St Paul's was used almost as a barometer of the health of the nation. For instance, on June 4, 1561, the spire was hit by lightning and burnt, and inevitably many assumed that the cause was divine wrath, though the majority of commentators were less hysterical and more practical. On May 16, 1631, Archbishop Laud told the Privy Council that the state of the cathedral was "a disgrace to our country and city, and a common imputation and scandal laid upon our religion by our adversaries as void of charity and true devotion". Two and a half centuries later, Prime Minister Gladstone remarked on the cathedral's "cold dark columns and its almost repulsive general condition" and called this "a burning reproach to Englishmen". Both Laud's and Gladstone's observations were a prelude to major phases of fundraising and restoration.

The rest of the book is a series of 33 essays, some very short, dealing with almost every conceivable aspect of the subject. We learn about the cathedral's estates and investments, the life of its clergy, liturgical changes, monuments, preaching, music, the library and a great deal else.

The last chapter, by Andrew Saint, professor of architecture at Cambridge University, concerns the reputation of the cathedral. And here we return to the philosophy behind St Paul's. Architectural historians led by Gordon Higgott and Giles Worsley are reassessing Wren's work and questioning his genius and architectural handling. They belong to a long tradition, Saint writes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the building was criticised for its plainness, its lack of integrity (the height of the nave is made up by screen walls), its use of secular motifs, its liturgical failings. Bishop Blomfield famously remarked: "I never pass St Paul's without thinking how little it has done for Christianity." Although the Victorians did masses for the cathedral, as ably chronicled by Teresa Sladen, she notes that they never really made up for the fact that Wren had not thought about how to decorate its interior.

The rehabilitation of the reputation of St Paul's in the 20th century was due to two kinds of propaganda, which Saint exposes. The cult of Wren, which underpinned the Queen Anne style of Wren-revival architecture at the end of the 19th century, reached a climax in the 1923 celebrations of the bicentenary of his death. The Wren Society's published volumes attributed almost every architect's drawing for the cathedral to his hand and hailed him unquestioningly as England's greatest architect. Then, two decades later, the cathedral's dome became the symbol of national togetherness and defiance during the Blitz. The famous photograph of the dome rising above the smoke of the burning city (taken by Herbert Mason from the roof of the Daily Mail offices in Fleet Street) we now know was doctored. But even knowing that the image was faked does not diminish one's admiration for the disembodied dome. Perhaps the dome is at the heart of the matter of the cathedral's reputation. It is a pivot around which the image of London turns. It is why views across the city still arouse such strong emotions when new skyscrapers are proposed.

Wren's design for the dome owed something, though it is not certain how much, to the work of his friend, the scientist and architect Robert Hooke. The two men had debated the structural dynamics of dome construction at the Royal Society in 1670-71 and their discoveries informed and guided Wren's engineering of the dome.

Michael Cooper's book on Hooke and the rebuilding of the City of London after the fire is the third book in recent years to contribute to the rehabilitation of an important but relatively neglected figure. It joins fine volumes on Hooke by Lisa Jardine and Stephen Inwood, doyens of 17th-century science and London history respectively, who have been aided by a group of architectural historians interested in the late 17th century.

In his day, Hooke was well known, but subsequently he was forgotten. The inventor of Hooke's law (which states that strain is proportional to stress) and many ingenious scientific instruments, he wrote one of the first bestselling books of popular science, Micrographia , based on his observations through a microscope that were literally a revelation to 17th-century readers. He was also an accomplished architect who designed some of the churches in the City (previously attributed to Wren), Bedlam Hospital in Moorfields and a number of other important public and private commissions.

But when the Great Fire destroyed so much of the City, Hooke's reputation was not in architecture. He was known for his work as professor of mathematics at Gresham College and as curator of experiments at the Royal Society, not as a surveyor, administrator or architect. It is therefore not clear why the City of London authorities turned to him after the fire. Yet they entrusted him with the vital and highly technical matter of overseeing the rebuilding of the city as their surveyor. At first there were three surveyors, but after 1670 only Hooke and one other. They had responsibility for enabling, directing and controlling the reconstruction that was, even in its time, a hugely bureaucratic process. Recommendations, orders, reports and directions flowed from a matrix of advisers, experts and decision-makers. It was necessary to establish land rights and property boundaries and at the same time to enforce new building regulations. Hooke personally measured, staked out and approved some 3,000 foundations - a colossal task in itself. The new regulations took away the freedom previously enjoyed by citizens to construct their dwellings as they pleased. Inevitably, the form, layout and construction of the new buildings were matters of bitter disagreement. In his 25 years or so in the job of surveyor, Hooke dealt with every conceivable complaint.

Was his appointment simply a matter of geography? In late 1666, Gresham College was at the hub of London; the city's government and business had relocated to the college's courtyards in Bishopsgate during the rebuilding process. Was it just a case of Hooke being on hand to offer his services? Surely there was rather more to it. Although Hooke was undoubtedly a strange character, he was generally recognised as a man of scientific and practical genius. He must have been spotted by the city's aldermen as one of the few people with the intellectual powers and the physical stamina to carry through the supervision of the rebuilding.

Cooper is emeritus professor of engineering surveying at City University.

His book aims to tell the story of how Hooke became a key figure in creating post-1666 London, while in the process drawing on "previously hidden archival evidence" to bring Hooke into the limelight. It comes in two parts. The first gives the background of Hooke's life: his employment by the Royal Society, his raging disputes with Sir Isaac Newton, his deep-seated feeling of not being recognised for his scientific work, his poor health and his incestuous sex life. We know all of this from Inwood and Jardine, and they tell it better.

After 73 pages of build-up I looked forward to reading the second part, about his achievement as surveyor of the City. But on page 146, we learn to our dismay that Hooke "made no innovations of any kind" in his surveying.

No doubt an expert author such as Cooper is right, but the statement comes as a blow to the reader - and the book does not really recover from it. The tale of Hooke's work in the city is solidly told and a new attribution is made - Cooper suggests that Hooke was involved in the design and construction of the Fleet Canal. But apart from this, the account is matter of fact. It is necessary to consult this book over and above the existing recent books on Hooke only if one is interested in the finer points of the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire. As a work of reference for this purpose it is a success.

Simon Thurley is chief executive, English Heritage, and was formerly director, Museum of London.

St Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004

Editor - Derek Keene, Arthur Burns and Andrew Saint
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 538
Price - £65.00
ISBN - 0 300 096 8

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