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The Church of St. George the Martyr, Southwark

I am woefully ignorant of all but the most famous of London’s architectural treasures. The little churches, piazzas, and palazzos I readily research in Italy are lost on me in my own home city. 

No more. 

Although this year will be spent predominantly in Venice and Padua, the few moments I’m in London, I will venture into each church, look at every interesting building, and walk through all the parks I come across (within reason. I need to eat. And watch Netflix). 

To start this new venture, I present the church of St George the Martyr in Southwark.

The first thing I learnt about this impressive place had nothing to do with the building itself, but turned out to be a correction on an assumption I had never bothered to question before; the assumption that St. George the Martyr and St. George (of the saucy beast killing kind), were two different saints. They are not. It’s all the same George; he killed the dragon, he was killed by Diocletian, he is the patron saint of England (and loads of other places, people, and institutions). 

Now to the actual building…

The church which is here today is likely the third on the site. Its predecessor can be seen in Hogarth’s engraving Southwark Fair of 1733. Good thing too, since it was demolished a year later.

A new church (this one) was erected between 1734 and 1736 to the designs of  John Price. It was partly funded by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. This was an organisation set up by Act of Parliament in 1710 with the intention of building (surprise) fifty new churches for the speedily growing London population.  It did not build fifty new churches. It built twelve. And helped finance the rebuilding of five more. (All these have come to be known as the Queen Anne Churches).

The major City Livery Companies and the Bridge House Estates also chipped in. You can still see their coats of arms inside (Skinners, Grocers, Fishmongers, Drapers).  

The church itself is built of red brick and Portland stone (a sturdy type of limestone). It has a copper and slate roof. There are eight steps leading up to the front facade, and the entrance door is flanked by two ionic columns. There is a very very big spire on top, with a ball and weather vane. 

Inside are a few more ionic columns (because, why not), and a bling bling ceiling. This was painted in 1897 by a man with the best name in the history of names; Basil Champneys. It shows cherubs, and clouds, and gold, and ribbons. I liked it very much. In doing so, I possibly uncovered my only example of shared taste with #therealdonaldtrump.

The church has a valid and well self-publicised association with Charles Dickens: his dad was imprisoned for debt next door, and Dickens himself lived nearby as a teenager. At the time, it was a pretty rough part of town, described by the vicar in 1899, when interviewed for the Charles Booth Poverty maps as a ‘difficult and at times an almost despairing’ neighbourhood. St George would go on to feature several times in Little Dorrit, a connection that came to becommemorated in 1951 in a stained glass window with a kneeling figure of Amy Dorrit, designed by artist Marion Grant (done in time for the Festival of Britain). 

The building suffered quite badly during the second world war. As a result, it subsequently had to undergo heavy restoration. The ceiling was improved in the 1950s, and all the windows, except the St George window in the south wall, were destroyed and had to be replaced. 

The most recent restoration occurred relatively recently after concerns about the safety of the structure were highlighted in 1999. Large scale works began in 2005-07 with all the fabric of the church being removed and renovated. This included inserting an internal steel frame in all the walls (they were wobbling around, which meant that the ceiling could collapse). A new crypt space was also built. 

Thankfully it’s all pretty sturdy (fingers crossed) now. 

About

A Western Art History blog by someone who sometimes gets paid  to read and write about Western Art History. Mostly Old Masters. Mostly Italian. Hopefully accurate.

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