Blueprint For Design

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.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

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 Exterior

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

Interior Plan

The Ceiling

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

The Pews

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.

The Organ

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 Pulpit

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 Font

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.

A Meeting of Minds

The Piazza di Spagna has been the location of the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican City since the 17th century. It was also the residential location for foreign visitors from the 17th to the 19th century. Tobias Smolett , the well known 18th century writer and surgeon, wrote a book about his experiences of travelling in France and Italy. This 1766 book describes the history and social life of the places he visited, giving his own opinion about diet and morals, and guiding future travellers on how to conduct themselves. He declared that “Here most of the English reside”.

But it was not only the English, other nations were represented too and were drawn to the area; artists, writers and musicians frequented the Piazza and the nearby streets. The meeting place for some of the most talented and influential people of their times. Franz Liszt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Henrik Ibsen, Honore de Balzac, Hans Christian Andersen, Felix Mendelssohn, Henry James, as well as Lord Byron, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Robert Browning, to name but a few.

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The Piazza di Spagna “Here most of the English reside” Smolett

The Piazza is famous for the Scalinata di Trinita Dei Monti, know as the Spanish Steps, which were built between 1723 to 1726, to connect the Santissima Trinita dei Monti with the Piazza. Charles VIII of France purchased land in order to found a convent for the French order of San Francesco di Paola. He also provided money to build a church the Santissima Trinita dei Monti. Approval was given by Pope Alessandro VI and construction started in 1502 using stone from Narbonne in France. The Gothic church’s towers were not built until 1580-87 when, by then, the style was out of favour. The church’s design can not be attributed to any one architect.

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Santissima Trinità dei Monti and Third Century Obelisk

Plans to build the steps date back to the 1580s when the church was built. The plans did not proceed due to a lack of funds. It was not until 1660 when money was left to the church for the project, by a French diplomat Etienne Gueffier who had left the money in his will for the sole purpose. Mazarin, Louis XIV’s Cardinal, took over the project but unfortunately it stalled again due to Gueffier’s nephew contesting the will; and Pope Alessandro VIII taking exception to the idea of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV as part of the design. Sixty six years later the steps were finally completed. The 135 Baroque style steps  were designed by the Italian architect Francesco De Sanctis, who was favoured by the French. There were diplomatic negotiations between the Vatican and French officials to make sure the completed work represented both nations.

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Keats-Shelly Museum viewed from Spanish Steps

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Keats-Shelley Museum viewed from front with original shop front with flour-de-lis symbol above

At the base of the steps, the buildings on either side were designed by Francesco de Sanctis and constructed by the French. The Casino Rossa on the right of the steps was designed as a purpose built shop with accommodation above. It is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, but was originally a boarding house where John Keats lived for three months before he died on 23rd February 1821. John Keats originally studied medicine at Guy’s Hospital registering in October 1815, and became a licensed apothecary in 1816. He was promoted to a Dresser allowing him to dress wounds, set bones and assist with surgery. In July he passed the examinations to become a surgeon and took a summer break in Margate. Keats’ first love had been literature and though he continued to write poetry, his medical studies were taking up to much of his time.  After spending his summer holiday writing, he returned to London and on the 31st October at the age of 21 he began practicing as a surgeon. In December 1816 his sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer was published in The Examiner, it was the turning point, he was disillusioned with medicine and now he could justify a change of career. Sometime after this period Keats started to take mercury for an unspecified illness, possibly veneral disease, though he was well aware how dangerous this medication was, by the summer of 1818 he was already showing signs of mercury poisoning. Towards the end of 1818 he was caring for his brother Tom who had contracted tuberculosis, because of Keats’ weakened system it was inevitable that he would also contract tuberculosis. Tom sadly died on 1 December 1818. Keats continued to write, and by the summer of 1819 he was ill with the first stage of tuberculosis. In February he started to haemorrhage, from the colour of the blood he knew he was dying.  It was decided that he should travel to Italy for the winter.

On the 13 September he left England for Naples with his friend Joseph Severn, the artist. They spent ten days in quarantine before arriving in Rome on the 14 November. He became a patient of Sir James Clark who had set up a practice in Rome, and took up residence in the Casino Rossa in the Plazza di Spagna. Clark’s diagnosis was consumption and to counteract the effects of the mercury, which damages the stomach, he  prescribed a starvation diet and blood letting. Keats as a physician was well aware that it was futile. He died at the age 25 and during his very short life he produced some beautiful poems. Keats had been invited to Pisa by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, Keats hoped he would visit him after his stay in Rome. Shelley wrote Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats upon hearing of his death. A year later when Shelley drowned there was a small copy of the Keats’ poetry in his pocket.

After the death of Keats the furniture, curtains, wallpaper and his personal property were burnt to stop the spread of disease and infection, this was decreed by Vatican Law. He was buried in the Protestant Cemetery, Shelley’s ashes were also interned here and they were joined by Joseph Severn in 1879.

The room where Keats died, the ceiling, fireplace and flooring are the only original features left.

Over the years the house fell into disrepair, but it was still attracting attention as the site where Keats died. By 1903 two American ladies were living there and showing visitors around. Eventually in 1906 a group of English, American and Italians raised the money to purchase the rundown Casino Rossa and after restoration it was formally opened in December 1909. Over the years the house suffered from only being available to the academics and its future was uncertain. In 1976 Sir Joseph Cheyne, Bt became curator and worked tirelessly to change the image; he encouraged school parties and made the house a tourist attraction. When Cheyne retired in 1990 its visitors numbered 11,000. The property is owned by the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, a British charity, it is run as a commercial business open six days a week, all year round except for one week in December. The house’s running costs are covered by the admission fee, a gift shop and the rental income. It has a library of over eight thousand books devoted to English Romanticism, holds various events, exhibitions and poetry readings. They have a book club, competitions, awards and a website doing a successful job to keep the memory of the dead poet alive.

In the centre of the Piazza is located an unusual fountain shaped like a sinking boat. The Fontana della Barcaccia was designed by Petro Bernini. The water for the fountain was supplied from the Acqua Vergine, one of the Roman aqueducts constructed by Consul and Architect Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Bernini’s design of a leaking boat compensated for the minimal water pressure. The fountain was commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in 1623. It was started in 1627 and completed after his death in 1629 by his son Gian Lorenzo Bernini. John Keats could hear the water flowing from the fountain and requested that the epitaph on his headstone should read: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

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The Piazza and Fontana della Barcaccia viewed from Keats-Shelley Museum

As previously mentioned the Piazza di Spagna was the area where English tourists congregated and as a nation we are very fond of a cup of tea. Two ladies who arrived in Italy in 1893 were able to exploit this need in order to make a successful business which is still flourishing today. Babington’s Tea Rooms can be found on the left side of the steps.

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Babington’s Tea Rooms

When the English Anna Maria Babington and the New Zealand Isabel Cargill arrived in Rome they invested their £100 in opening a tea rooms on the Via dei Due Macelli, close to the piazza. Obviously it was a resounding success, as it provided the comforts of home for the weary tourist, and the next year they relocated to the building on the left side of the steps.

In 1910 Annie Cargill the sister of Isabel, arrived in Rome and opened the Hotel Londra & Cargill on the corner of Via Collina and the Piazza Sallustio. The hotel is a large building dating from the 1800s and is open to this day. Unfortunately the tea room business was effected by the outbreak of the first world war and this continued into the 1920s. Anna Maria moved to Switzerland due to ill health and sadly died of a heart attack. Isabel’s daughter Dorothy, from her marriage to the Italian artist Giuseppe da Pozzo, took over the management of the tea rooms. Annie invested money in the tea rooms, they were refurbished and business started to pick up again. Throughout the second world war the family left Rome, when they returned after the war they found out that the staff had kept the tea rooms open using their own rations. This family run business is still as successful as ever, and has built up a worldwide following through its website and sales of its merchandise.

 

The photos are from the author’s own collection.

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