Pensive, I view’d a sacred pile, of late Which falls, like man, to rise, in nobler state.Aaron Hill
The Scottish Roman Catholic architect James Gibbs, was originally destined for the priesthood, planning to study at the Scots College in Rome. Changing his mind he went on to study architecture in Rome instead. He was the first British architect to receive a professional training abroad, under the tutelage of Carlo Fontana, who mainly worked in Rome. Fontana had started his training as pupil to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Petro (Berrettini) da Cortona and Carlo Rainaldi. Gibbs was also taught by Pietro Francesco Garoli, Professor of Perspective at the Accademia di San Luca, where Carlo Fontana had been Principal. Gibbs took advantage of his time in Italy to make a living by producing drawings of the antiquities for visiting British nobility and gentry, who were on the Grand Tour. This work and networking proved to be very advantageous to his future career when he returned home. It was John Erskine, Earl of Mar, who contributed financially for Gibbs’ studies in Rome and provided employment for him on his return in 1708, carrying out alterations to his Whitehall house.
Gibbs was more successful than his fellow architects in using his publications and work, to further his career and reputation as an architect. He was the first architect to publish his own designs in A Book of Architecture, Containing designs of buildings and ornaments (1728). It was a pattern book of his buildings and monuments, his designs were adaptable, so the book included variations to the existing designs. These were used to build churches throughout the Country and the world. His publications were highly remunerative, which was unusual for the period. He also benefitted financially from the sale of plates and copyright from The Rules for Drawing the Several Parts of Architecture (1732), long after its publication.
His first public building on returning from Italy was for the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches. Having friends in high places certainly helped. It was the Earl of Mar, a fellow Catholic Scot, who brought him to the attention of Robert Harley, first Earl of Oxford and Earl Mortimer who happened to be Queen Anne’s chief minister. It was as a result of his training and his network of friends that the Commissioners appointed him as a surveyor in 1713. Gibbs designed the new St Mary le Strand, gaining inspiration from London architecture and influence from St Paul’s Cathedral. After all Wren did champion his cause to be appointed surveyor. The construction of the new £16,000 church began in 1714 and was important as it occupied a prominent location opposite Somerset House and visible from the Thames. Unfortunately with the succession of a new Hanovaroian King and a Whig government coming to power; and the association with the Earl of Mar, he only completed one church. Mar had fled to France as the government had passed a Writ of Attainder for treason against him, for his prominent position in the Jacobite rising of 1715. Though Gibbs was to loose his position with the Commission due to the change in governance, the work he undertook for them would play an important part in his future career, he was now part of the Tory inner circle.
In 1711 John Holles, first Duke of Newcastle had purchased the Marylebone Estate. The estate land was originally the extensive Manor of Tyburn, but when the old Tyburn church was relocated in 1400, the the new church was named St Mary-la-Bourne, which ultimately became corrupted to St Marylebone. Shortly after the purchase the property passed to Newcastle’s daughter and heir Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles who happened to marry Edward Harley the only son of Robert Harley. It was because of Gibbs’ connection to the Harley family that he became a sort of architectural advisor, and also designed buildings for this new Cavendish-Harley estate. The area extends from Oxford Street and the Marylebone Road and is now known as the Howard de Walden Estate.
The estate’s development was incredibly slow taking nearly 60 years to complete, due mainly to financial problems brought about by the collapse of the South Sea Bubble in 1720. Gibbs designed the Oxford Chapel on Vere Street in 1722 (completed 1724), located on the west side of the estate, which proved to be a smaller version of his masterpiece of St Martin-in-the-Fields; which he was building at the same time. In 1832 the chapel was dedicated to St Peter, and later in the century the Stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by Morris & co were introduced. Since 1982-3 the chapel has been transformed into office space for the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.
While working on the Cavendish-Harley Estate, Gibbs purchased leases for building plots on Henrietta Street (now Henrietta Place). He designed and built four houses (No. 5, 9, 10 & 11), one as a future home and the others for investment. These were under construction while he was completing St Martin-in-the -Fields. Unfortunately these properties no longer exist as they were demolished in the 1950s. Elements of the drawing room from the first floor of No 11 were saved and given to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The room is on view in the British Galleries as Room 54 Henrietta Street Room. The room was reconstructed and the missing pieces reproduced using James Gibbs’ original drawings, from the museum’s Print Room. This is the only remaining example of an interior design by Gibbs.
In 1720 Gibbs was successful with a winning design for the competition to design a replacement for a decaying church in Westminster. There has been a church on the site since some time between 1086 and 1154. Throughout the Tudor period the original church was rebuilt and refurbished. With an increase in population the church was enlarged on the north, south and west sides and a chancel was added during the early 1600s. Newspapers contained notices advising relatives to remove bodies and monuments for their interment elsewhere. Remaining monuments were reinstalled in the crypt of the finished church.
The Bishop of Salisbury laid the foundation stone on the King’s behalf on the 19th March 1721 and it was completed in 1726 and proves that Gibbs was an exceptionally talented artist.
St Martin-in-the-Fields Viewed from Trafalgar Square
The church’s design is reminiscent of a cross between a basilica (Roman public building), and a Roman temple; both of which Gibbs would have had first hand knowledge from his time in Rome. It is significant that the design pays homage to these original public buildings, which would have been located in a prominent part of the town, especially as St Martin’s was on the Royal processional route to the City of London.
The church is built of Portland stone with a leaded roof. The rectangular body of the building has at the eastern end a hexastyle portico, with eight giant Corinthian columns supporting a pedimented entablature; the tympanum contains the Royal Arms of George I.
The Pedimented Entablature with Royal Arms of George I
The outer surface of the building is divided into bays by Corinthian order pilasters. Between the bays are two tiers of semicircular arched windows with the iconic Gibbs surround.
Arched Window with the Iconic Gibbs Surround
The staged steeple is located on the roof behind the portico. The first stage is square with a circular window on each side. The second stage is also square with an arched Gibbs surround window on each side, the corners are topped with urns. The next stage has clock faces topped with semicircles. The fourth stage changes to an octagonal belvedere with decorative finials supporting a small octagonal spire, with a series of circular openings topped with a ball and weather-vane.
The Steeple of St Martin-in-the-Fields
The Church Interior
The beautiful embellished elliptical vaulted ceiling is divided into panels decorated in ornate stucco. The stucco work was carried out by Giuseppe Artari and Giovanni Bagutti. Their work was highly sort after and Gibbs employed them on several occasions, including to work on his houses in Henrietta Street.
A Section of the Elliptical Vaulted Ceiling
There are large Corinthian columns dividing the nave from the aisles. These columns stand on high panelled pedestals, supporting the galleries over both aisles, and between the columns semi circular arches form vaulted spandrels.
A View of the Corinthian Columns
A Corinthian Column
Gibbs’ original design was for pews only in the galleries. By 1758 temporary high backed pews were introduced, and in 1799 the whole church had permanent high backed seating, the same height as the column’s pedestals. Alterations to the seating took place during the 19th century.
Four Views of Pews
The doors on the end of the pews were opened by the Parish Beadle at half-a-Crown a time.
King George I provided a Christopher Schrider organ costing £1,500, it was sold to St Mary’s Wotton-Under-Edge Gloucestershire for £200 in 1799 when the interior alterations were undertaken. Its replacement was changed in 1853 and after long service this organ was finally replaced in 1990 by the present Walker Organ with over 3,000 pipes.
The Walker Organ
The 18th century pulpit is the work of local craftsmen. It was originally located on the north side of the church. During the 19th century when the interior was changed the pulpit was altered and moved to its present position. Originally the hexagonal oak pulpit supported on a highly moulded hexagonal stem, was a three decker, the lower positions and the sounding board were removed. The panels are covered in carved foliated and escalloped designs, underneath are cherub’s heads. the sweeping stairs have three spiral balusters to a trend and the newels are miniature columns.
Views of the Pulpit
The beautiful font dates from 1689 and was originally presented by William Bridgeman to the old St Martin’s church. The elliptical font is made of grained marble, and the basin is supported on a spiral fluted and foliated pedestal. The font came with a carved oak cover, in 1845 a churchwarden sold it , luckily it was recovered from an antique dealer.
The Marble Font
The East Window
During World War II the original window was shattered and the replacement is the work of Iranian artist Shirazeh Houshiary. The Venetian window consists of a stainless steel grid with handmade glass panels etched with a feathery pattern. The grid is distorted to form a cross with a large central elliptical pane allowing light to burst through.
The East Window above the Alter
The Ever Open Door
It was in 1915 when it became known as “the Church of the Ever-Open Door”, the then Vicar Dick Sheppard an uncoventional figure provided refuge for the soldiers leaving for France and for the homeless. The church providing care for the needy and homeless continues to the present day. The church is famous for its Christmas appeals and was a founding member of Amnesty International, Shelter and The Big Issue among others. It has a world renowned chamber ensemble the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It has a full calendar with concerts and music events given by internationally know musicians, some are free and many are online.
All the photos, drawings and plans are the work of the author and as such remain her copyright.