IN Covent Garden explores the colourful history of St Paul’s Church, a place of solitude for parishioners and entertainers alike.
First and foremost, St Paul’s is a church. It exists to nourish the spiritual needs of parishioners as well as members of the stage fraternity, who have held long and happy association with this sanctuary in the heart of Theatreland. Ordinary worshippers at the Eucharist and times of quiet prayer often include religious travelling actors far from home.
When entering the church, you may notice to your right a lazybones pussycat. This is not a toy; this is Jones who has become something of a local celebrity too. Occasionally Jones goes out to worry the pigeons but, more often than not, can be found catnapping in the narthex.
The origins of this fascinating old church are something of a fluke. When the Piazza development was being built, the Bedford family were obliged to include a place of worship in the plans. The notoriously thrifty 4th Earl charged architect Inigo Jones (hence the cat’s name) that he “would not have it much better than a barn”. To which Inigo replied: “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.”
Originally Jones had intended the Eastern porticoed façade as the entrance, but this went against contemporaneous tradition: it was considered sacrosanct that the altar occupies the eastern part of any church. So, reluctantly, Jones abandoned his blueprint for the compromise of a modest doorway to the traditional west. As it turned out, this would have the accidental benefit of allowing the market to thrive in later years. Covent Garden would have a very different outlook, had it not been for Jones’ compromise.
The building itself is straightforward in architectural terms: a double square of 50 feet by 100 feet (or 15 metres by
30 metres), although the exterior retains a few flourishes such as the over-long eaves and false portico. When St Paul’s was built in 1631, Jones had returned from his Grand Tour and resolved to borrow architectural styles he had encountered in Italy. This would not be to everyone’s tastes, as the parliamentarian Horace Walpole opined: “Whoever saw a beautiful Tuscan Building? Would the Romans have chosen that order for a temple?”
Squabbling at Court and the buzzard Cromwell’s treachery meant that St Paul’s Parish Church was not officially consecrated until 1688.
Over the years, St Paul’s has evolved alongside Theatreland and when visiting, the long association with performing arts becomes clear: the nave has plaques aplenty to the great and the good of the stage and screen.
Given the abundance of acting talent that is commemorated here, it seems invidious to single out just a few individuals, but one may see tributes to Richard Beckinsale, Gracie Fields, Hattie Jacques, Vivien Leigh, Charles Macklin and many other worthies. Readers are recommended to visit for themselves, to stroke dozy Jones and understand the connection that this place of worship shares with the acting community.
A number of recitals and performances take place here, as well as the scheduled services.
Perhaps the most famous theatrical link with St Pauls are the opening scenes of ‘My Fair Lady’, borrowed from GB Shaw’s Pygmalian and ultimately Ovid’s Metamorphoses which shows the familiar portico, a backdrop that reappears throughout, notably when Audrey Hepburn sings “Wouldn’t it be Lavverley”. Under this same famous portico, nobleman diarist Samuel Pepys records the first British performance of a Punch & Judy puppet show “which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw, and great resort of gallants.”
These days, when a prominent actor takes his or her final bow, it is not uncommon for the church to be chosen to conduct a memorial service for the departed, mourners invariably include theatrical friends as well as the unwelcome attention of the paparazzi.
The church is open to visitors of any faith and none every day for quiet contemplation, prayer and worship.
For more information visit: www.actorschurch.org