City of London Churches

21 May 2015

SIG: Archaeology and Heritage

Relatively few churches were built in England in the second half of the 17th century, but the City of London is a notable exception due to the hand of fate. Even as Christopher Wren’s plans to remodel the old St. Paul’s Cathedral were being considered in 1666, the Great Fire of London swept through the city, destroying the cathedral and over eighty parish churches. Sir Christopher, as he became, went on to rebuild St. Paul’s, but also designed over fifty parish churches in the City during the twenty five years or so following the fire. The available sites, often cramped and of irregular shape, led to variety and innovation in design. Taken together, Wren’s city churches are unique in England.

The outing of 6th May visited three outstanding examples, where the group had permission to photograph inside. The party congregated at St. Mary Abchurch, which offered photographers a complete Wren interior, including the magnificently carved reredos (altar screen) by Grinling Gibbons and an elaborate pulpit. Here, traditional aisles, nave and chancel are replaced by a square interior topped by a painted dome, one of the church’s most striking features. Monuments cover the walls, and a west gallery afforded a fine view of the overall scene, so there was much to photograph.

Nearby St. Stephen Walbrook is considered to be Wren’s most elegant church interior. Within the main building, a cube of classical columns defines the central space, and inner columns support a central dome, elaborately plastered and illuminated by a lantern atop the dome. The shapes and patterns created by this design delight the eye from every standpoint, and were a draw for the photographers. The church retains its original reredos and pulpit, but more controversially is arranged around a central altar by Henry Moore.

St Stephen Walbrook - photo by Philip Bovey


Group members made their own arrangements at lunchtime, and met up again in the afternoon at St. Magnus-the-Martyr. Much altered over the years, this church is rectangular with a vaulted aisle of classical columns, both columns and vault being gilded. The large reredos, complete with texts and paintings, and the Anglo-Catholic fittings create a visually rich interior, and both the overall space and the many details were of photographic interest.

St Magnus Martyr by Philip Bovey


Externally the churches also display variety, particularly in their steeples, which are such a feature of the London cityscape. St. Mary Abchurch has a brick tower topped with a lead spire, and the other two are of stone. That at St. Stephen Walbrook is topped by a pagoda-like structure incorporating classical columns, whilst at St. Magnus-the–Martyr there is an octagonal stage and a lead cupola and small spire at the apex.


Text by Mike Sasse

Feature photo by Edmund White

To see more photographs taken by the participants, visit the A&H gallery here