Christ Church, Spitalfields

The site of Christ Church in Spitalfields is a huge burial pit from the days of not only the plague but long before that. 8,000 skeletons of plague victims were recently exhumed from beneath the church, which were buried at the same time as the building was planned.
Therefore either the architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, deliberately built a church on the bodies of victims of a plague which people genuinely thought heralded the end of the world, or it was some kind of happy accident. Either way this fact forms part of the web of dark rumours surrounding this incredible church which have persisted since Christ Church came into being.
From its construction this church has been regularly cited as Hawksmoor’s masterpiece, as it perfectly blends the baroque style and roman classicism in his inimitable way, and seeing such a church fully restored as it would have been in 1729 truly takes your breath away.
However, it was not always so. As with so much architecture, buildings fall prey to contemporary whims as their architects fall in and out of fashion. Having been built in the early 18th century, the church was savagely altered in 1850 by Ewan Christian and fell into disrepair over the next hundred years, as congregation numbers fell, and no funds could be found to repair damages incurred by the passing of time.
It was closed in 1956 on safety grounds and temporary measures, such as a erecting a token roof were undertaken to preserve it as much a possible, and the crypt became a recovery centre for homeless alcoholics, which also kept the demolition men from the door. But the real saviours of this church were the local residents, whose tireless fundraising has now achieved a complete, breathtaking restoration.
The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields were formed in 1976 and began their campaign to raise the funds required to restore the church, and it is thanks to this charity that it stands the magnificent building it is today.
The portico stone which has been painstakingly cleaned over years has a stunning effect of making the whole building seem to rise up and hover above Commercial Road, a dowdy street in the east end of London. And it is this contrast, between the building and its surroundings, which in many ways contributes to the initial effect of the exterior of the building.
Inside the decision not to re-install the box pews means that you get a full sense of the enormity of the space inside, which is almost half that of St Paul’s, immediately as you enter. And even on a gloomy day the afternoon light coming through the south windows gently bestows a peaceful grace on the whole interior.
The Purbeck stone floor helps to reflect the light up to the ceiling, and to highlight the ornate detailing in the roof, while still making the space feel simple and practical.
At the altar, the decision was taken to keep the Victorian stained glass window, which was somewhat controversial as some thought Hawksmoor has intended for white light to shine through these windows, but the majority won.
Just as Christ Church is the masterpiece of its architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, so the organ installed in the new church in 1735 was the masterpiece of the greatest organ builder in Georgian England, Richard Bridge.Richard Bridge’s new organ, with three rows of keys and over two thousand pipes, was erected on the west gallery in a case of solid walnut. The double serpentine front, exuberantly carved in the richest taste, is one of only eight ever made to that pattern and by far the largest of the set. The gilded front pipes include the low notes down to contra G, five notes lower than found on organs built today.This is currently under restoration and along with the crypt, is next on the list of things to do by the Friends.To earn its keep, the Church is available for weddings, and other functions, as well as being a working church and a highly sought-after concert venue, so an adaptable interior was essential to the restoration. But this has been achieved without compromising the original plans. As Red Mason, the architect behind the project told COUNTRY LIFE’s Jeremy Musson in September 2004: ‘If Hawksmoor walked into the church now, he would recognise his design.’
So the solid, practical, spiritual building will now stand, as a working building for hundreds of years to come, thanks to the hard work of everybody involved, and the generous donations of individuals, charities, and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
And work is ongoing: the organ still needs to be properly restored, as does other interior work, and the Friends of Christ Church are currently running a scheme whereby people can buy a chair, each of which costs £160, and dedicate a message in a handwritten book in return for their donation.
It is such an incredible achievement considering what a terrible state Christ Church was in half a century ago, a restoration which has taken the dedication of so many, but it is difficult to get to the bottom of exactly why this building is so inspiring to so many.
Peter Ackroyd wroteHawksmoorbased on some of the idiosyncracies of the design, and the old myth that Hawksmoor churches were built on a pentangle in London, and the architect himself was a Satanist, Christ Church a temple to honour the devil.
And Ackroyd himself acknowledges the debt he owes to Iain Sinclair’s dense workLud Heatis based around this myth.
But whatever it is, be it the bold architecture, the positioning of the building or the reputation of the architect, there is something about Christ Church which strikes a chord with many people’s imagination.
Either way this restoration has given back to London one of her most remarkable buildings, and most beautiful churches, and this alone warrants a pilgrimage. As for seperating the truth from the myth, you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.
The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields can be contacted at theirwebsite, and by telephone on +44 (0)20 7859 3035. The Church is open to the public on Tuesdays from 11am – 4pm.
October 21, 2004
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