St Paul’s Church, Covent Garden London

London / United Kingdom / 2021

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The most recent church furniture scope was for new seating for nearly 300 using a new version of our stacking pew concept (now known as the ‘Windsor bench’), new choir music desks, clergy seating and some wainscot cladding to disguise the bar and kitchen servery. Further works included a new crucifix and a set of gilded walnut candle-stands to sit behind the altar on the reredos, under the copy of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (the original of which hangs in the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence). We are currently working on modifications to the area around the font, the sound control unit and the pulpit. The aim is to respect the history of the interior, reduce clutter and create an atmosphere that is not only familiar and appropriate but also practical to use and profitable for the parish.


The Covent Garden church of St Paul’s has, for four hundred years, witnessed and enhanced the buzz and bustle of the beating heart of London. It has served as a nucleus for local artisans, actors, entrepreneurs, printers and publishers, film studios and creative industries. It has hosted monarchs, aristocrats and vegetable traders; set the scene for Charles II’s legendary orange-selling mistress, Nell Gwynne; featured in Hogarth’s etchings; served as a place of worship for craftsmen like Grinling Gibbons and Thomas Chippendale; been a rallying point for candle-lit street protest marches in the 1970s and become indelibly associated with London’s surrounding theatrical world.


The new bespoke church furniture now allows the building to stay relevant, generate revenue, be efficient to operate, whilst at the same time enable and enhance modern liturgical as well as other secular purposes.


The church was commissioned by the Earl of Bedford in 1631 as part of the redevelopment of an orchard owned by a former nunnery (hence ‘Convent’ or ‘Covent’ garden) and was designed, along with the new piazza, by Inigo Jones, freshly returned from inspecting Palladio’s architectural works in northern Italy. It can claim to be the first ‘modern’ London church to be built since the Reformation a century earlier and, along with Whitehall’s Banqueting House and the Queen’s House in Greenwich, is also amongst the earliest neo-classical buildings in the country. The chosen style reflected both the new political (in the reign of the first Stuart monarch after the Tudors) and religious realities. As an early ‘auditory’ and expressly Protestant church, it was designed to make it easier to emphasise the importance of hearing Bible readings and sermons over the breaking of bread during a Eucharist service.


 


It was already featuring, anecdotally, in London life shortly after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. On 9 May 1662 Samuel Pepys records (‘and thence to see an Italian puppet play… the best that I ever saw’) the first English reference to a Punch and Judy show in London. On 12 April 1665, the first known victim (Margaret Porteous) of the Great Plaque was buried in the churchyard.


The church was gutted by fire in 1795 and endured a number of architectural make-overs during the 19th century, the results of which saw an accumulation of visual clutter and incoherent design. It lost its architectural voice and, with scruffier neighbours in the vegetable market, some of its standing in Londoners’ hearts.


Its connections with the theatre began almost 200 years before the fruit and vegetable market was built in the piazza during the 1830s, especially after the establishment of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1663 and the opening of the Covent Garden Theatre (now the site of the Royal Opera House), in 1723. These associations have endured and, although the graveyard was closed to burials after 1852, the church has continued to be a venue of discreet memorials to actors of eminence since the 18th century, including Dame Ellen Terry and Dame Edith Evans, Sir Charlie Chaplin, Sir Noel Coward, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gracie Fields, Stanley Holloway, Boris Karloff, Vivien Leigh, Ivor Novello, Kenneth More, Margaret Rutherford, Anna Neagle and Diana Rigg. It flourishes as a favoured venue for family weddings, baptisms, funerals and memorials, especially for local residents and for the theatrical world. 


Its distinctive East portico became indelibly associated with the fictional meeting between Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’, which was later turned into one of the greatest stage and film musicals of all time, ‘My Fair Lady’. Even today, in recognition of this mythical meeting, the two resident cats are named ‘Eliza’ and ‘Mrs Higgins’.


Like many modern parishes, today’s church has been forced to find a balance between articulating its original religious purpose in an increasingly secular age and the rigours of economic survival. This means, essentially, the generation of revenue. But how can this be done without compromising a Grade 1 listed status? The answer lies in the church furniture, especially the seating which, if movable, easy to store and sympathetic to the interior, can transform the opportunities.


The current Rector, Rev Simon Grigg (who was appointed in 2006), his administrative team and some inspired churchwardens, have gradually undertaken a delicate and sensitive refurbishment of the interior. This has essentially involved removing accumulated clutter (surface-mounted wiring, an assortment of incongruous furnishings, drab carpets and curtains), improvements to the lighting and sound-systems, adding a suitably camouflaged bar and servery, as well as superficial cleaning and redecorating. It has also involved re-focussing attention in the areas of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, font and pulpit (and there's minor further work planned for these areas).


The church has no parish hall but does have good acoustics and a fine organ. As such, it is a perfect venue for lunch-time and evening concerts, plays, lectures, flower-festivals, as well as memorials and weddings. Rumour has it that it can also accommodate a catwalk for London Fashion Week. 


Nevertheless, it is still a parish church, with a local community, closely associated with the residents of the area, its school and its market square. It still needs to have a default layout when it can be ‘at rest’, speaking of its purpose as a church, a place of repose in a busy city. This has been our parish church, too, and we’re in to our fifth decade of close connections.


Luke Hughes as a student, in the 1970s, when the whole area was scheduled for demolition, had been caught up with some of the street demonstrations and protest marches organised to try to stop the Covent Garden market buildings and much of the surrounding area being flattened by property developers. The church was always the rallying point in those heady days.


Later, just after the market buildings had been restored and re-opened in 1980, we moved our workshop from Lambs Conduit Street in Bloomsbury to Drury Lane. One of the very first jobs Luke ever did was to make some wheel-chair ramps and display boards for the church. Earlier this year we celebrated a 40th anniversary (a year late, thanks to COVID -19) of living and working in Covent Garden. And we celebrated it in the church, because now we could.


This is thanks to the new Windsor bench stacking pews, a concept we invented thirty years ago. In our view, stacking pews look far better than chairs in almost all church interiors, whatever their age or style. They enable congregations to bunch up, are easy to move, lighter and more versatile than a conventional church bench and less obtrusive than chairs. It is a concept that, with changes to sizes, colours, mouldings, can accommodate a huge variety of layouts and be adapted to suit the architectural style of each building. Ideal church furniture.


 


So, it is with St Paul’s. The building is listed Grade 1 so there was understandable caution from the Church Buildings Council, Historic England and other conservation groups about any changes whatsoever to the interior. Their concerns were turned to advantage. Minor modifications were made to the design of our standard stacking pews to keep the architectural feel consistent with the interior as it had evolved and this turned out to so successful that the Chancellor of the London Diocese not only resoundingly endorsed the proposed plans, but also publicly congratulated the parish for the care in their submission and Luke Hughes and Company for their approach.


Intriguingly, one of the livelier recent social events was the celebration of the 90th birthday of Mark Girouard, the former architectural editor of Country Life, a party that was attended by most of the nation’s distinguished architectural historians along with Inspectors from Historic England. Even their combined acute visual antennae barely noticed how, in less than fifteen minutes before they arrived, the church pew benches had been cleared away, stacked on storage dollys and neatly aligned against the wainscot.

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    The most recent church furniture scope was for new seating for nearly 300 using a new version of our stacking pew concept (now known as the ‘Windsor bench’), new choir music desks, clergy seating and some wainscot cladding to disguise the bar and kitchen servery. Further works included a new crucifix and a set of gilded walnut candle-stands to sit behind the altar on the reredos, under the copy of Botticelli’s Madonna and Child (the original of...

    Project details
    • Year 2021
    • Work finished in 2021
    • Status Completed works
    • Type Churches
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