Saturday, 19 May 2012

Random Reasons to Love London # 5

18th-century engraving of St John's, Smith Square (Image source: Wikipedia)

The other day, I went to a meeting in Westminster with a couple of colleagues. Once it was over, we went for a slight detour on the way back to the office in order to walk past St John's, Smith Street. Tucked away in the terraced streets to the south of Westminster Abbey, this was one of the churches built under the instruction of the Commission for the Building of Fifty New Churches, a body established under an Act of Parliament in 1711. Only just over ten were actually built but they are some of the most striking of London's churches. Others include Hawksmoor's Christchurch, Spitalfields, which will be known to anyone familiar with Brick Lane, and St George's, Bloomsbury, also by Hawksmoor, with its wonderfully playful spire...

St George's, Bloomsbury (Image source: World Monuments Fund)

But I digress. My colleagues and I went to have a look at St John's, Smith Square, built to the designs of Thomas Archer, and completed in 1728. Again, it is a strikingly playful, Baroque building. The legend goes that Archer approached Queen Anne to ask her thoughts on the design of the church. Not particularly interested, her response was to kick over her footstool so that it lay upside down, with its legs in the air. She gestured at it and said, "like that". It henceforth adopted the name of Queen Anne's footstool. After this amusing beginning, however, the story of the church becomes much sadder in the 1940s, as it suffered a direct hit in the Blitz. It was extensively but sensitively restored in subsequent decades, and has served as a classical concert hall ever since.

St John's today (Image source: London Traveltips)

My colleagues and I admired the church from the outside and then one of them decided he'd try and ask at the reception desk if we could have a look inside. Unfortunately we were turned down, as there were apparently preparations going on for a concert and it was necessary to make an advance appointment in any case. Fair enough.

However, as we were walking away from the building, a gentleman came up and asked, "Did I just hear you asking if you could have a look inside?" Thinking he was another architectural enthusiast also interested in having a look, I responded with "Yes, but we were turned down, sadly." To which he responded, "Well, I'm the director, and it would be my pleasure to take you up." Wasn't that a stroke of luck? And what a lovely chap.

He showed us into the church and told us various fun facts, including the proposal suggested in the 1960s to have had Picasso paint the ceiling! That would have just been mind-blowing! My colleagues and I wonder if there's concept drawings lurking somewhere in archives because it would be fascinating to have a sense of what that would have been like. Still, the building is striking enough in its own right so perhaps it's just as well that plan didn't go ahead, as it might have just been an overload!

The interior of St John's, Smith Square (Image source: Venues London)

After our brief, spontaneous and exclusive tour, we thanked our unexpected host and headed off. But what a treat we had, thanks to a friendly and hospitable stranger!

(And, kind of on the topic of things to love about London: in preparation for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, don't forget to enter my giveaway! Only a couple of days left...)


  1. Wow! Amazing photos! The church looks so stunning. It makes it even better that you had a friendly stranger give you a tour... Hooray for good people in the world!

    1. Glad you enjoyed the pictures, and we cheered by the story of good people still being out there!

  2. A very interesting post, thank you! I felt quite moved (as well as pleased for you all) by the story of your kindly host. Perfect description of St George's tower as "playful". Great photo of it in bright sunshine. I find it fabulous. I was very happy when I "discovered" it by myself.