Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

Last week I’d planned to visit the St Bartholomew Hospital Museum. I’ve made it a bit of a mission to visit as many of these small, quirky museums as possible (you can see my progress in this recent blog). So off I went for inspiration. However, if I’m brutally honest, nothing really jumped out at me. Perhaps I wasn’t in a medical mood…

All was not lost however!

I took the opportunity to have a wander around West Smithfield while the sun was shining and I did stumble upon some pretty magical spots.

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

Hogarth’s Stairs

It’s not strictly true that nothing in the museum caught my eye.

The museum is connected to The Great Hall, accessible via these rather fabulous stairs named after their painter; William Hogarth in the 1730s.

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

Hogarth was born in St Bartholomew Close and bapitised in the local St Bartholomew the Great (more on that later). In the 1720s he was still living in the hospital precincts when he heard the hospital governors had commissioned a Venetian artist, Jacopo Amigoni, to paint the interior decoration for a new North Wing.

Having none of that, Hogarth decided to offer his own services free of charge. A gesture partly to do with generosity, but mainly to do with national pride.

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

The painting use two Bible stories revolved around healing. The first scene to be completed was ‘Christ at the Pool of Bethesda’, painted on canvas in his studio then mounted on the walls. In the story Christ heals a man who’s been unable to walk for 38 years. The second image was painted in situ so it matched the tone of the first. ‘The Good Samaritan’ can be seen below tending a half naked man with oil and wine (first century first aid).

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

From this dim room I stepped blinking into the sunlight, ready for some more exploring.

Some Cracking Trivia

The area of Smithfield (a corruption from the 12th century name of ‘Smoothfield’) is pretty gory. Formerly a location for feast days and jousting, it also served as an execution spot for traitors. One of the more famous faces who met their end here was William Wallace, commemorated in this memorial;

A post shared by Nicole Pellizzeri (@nipells) on

Skipping a few centuries ahead there’s another memorial near the hospital entrance you should seek out. The iconic six-times-married Henry VIII has pride of place on the eponymous gate because he ‘saved’ St Bartholomew’s during the dissolution of the monasteries.

The King had his heart set on disbanding all the monastic organisations (including Barts Priory in 1539) but was lobbied by the citizens of London to be reinstate and therefore secure the hospital’s income. In 1546 Henry granted the City of London control over the hospital along with 3 more (Bethlem, Bridewell and St Thomas’) a year later.

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

It’s the only public statue of King Henry VIII  in London.

St Bartholomew the Great

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

Founded as an Augustinian Priory in 1123, the church was heavily damaged in 1543 during the dissolution of the monasteries.

You might recognise its characteristic black and white facade from films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Shakespeare in Love and Sherlock Holmes.

As well as being ludicrously atmospheric, the High anglican church is also full of quirky details…

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

This is the tomb of Prior Rahere, founder of Priory, church and hospital of St Bartholomew. He died in 1143.

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Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

This is the Oriel Window of Prior William Bolton. Dated from 16th Century and supposedly so the Prior could make sure the monks were behaving, at the bottom of the window in the centre there’s a rebus (a pictorial pun) featuring a crossbow, or ‘Bolt’ passing through a barrel, or ‘tun’, giving us the architects name. Geddit?

It’s not just ‘old’ things either. I was surprised to also come across…

Contemporary Art

Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

Designed by Damien Hirst in 2006, ‘Exquisite Pain’ is an illustration of St Bartholomew’s martyrdom; being flayed alive.

“I like the confusion you get between science and religion … that’s where belief lies and art as well.” – Hirst being interviewed about his piece in 2008

Opposite the church is possibly…

London’s Oldest Home

Most of the houses in this area were falling apart by the 20th century and the majority were demolished in the 1930s, but a couple survived, including the home of John Betjeman, the Victorian conservation campaigner and former Poet Laureate, who lived at No.43.

But two homes that have a can claim to be London’s oldest are 41 & 42 Cloth Fair – pictures below.

The first building were erected in the 1540s but the current ones were built in 1614. In 1929 they were threatened with demolition – imagine! – but thankfully they were restored in the 1990s and are now private family homes.

If you fancy a look inside there was an interview with I Paper on 2017 with the owner Matthew Bell here. You can also read more about the history in Fiona Rule’s amazing book; The Oldest House in London.

Enjoyed these treasures of West Smithfield? Discover much more on my Smithfield and Clerkenwell walking tour (including entrance into St Bartholomew the Great!) Available dates below.

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Hidden Gems of West Smithfield

5 Comments

  • Pat Keep

    Reply

    Fabulous and good for you. Including nearby decent non rip off eateries would be helpful for us provincial too.
    Visiting St Barts with my sister in mid March. Having also been underwhelmed by the museum at the hospital, where else nearby is worth a visit. Am expecting snow when we come.

    February 24, 2019 at 9:29 am
  • Maureen Richardson

    Reply

    Dear Katie, I love this piece on St. Barts & Smithfield! That whole area been on my list for so long. Filming had closed St. Bart the Great on my last trip in 2018😞. Please don’t drop this tour anytime soon or if so, perhaps when I get back for my 19th visit to London I can just engage you for a private tour? I so enjoy your pieces & look forward to seeing your Look Uo London . I have learned so mucg & am itching to get back!

    December 11, 2019 at 1:52 pm
  • Jo Evans

    Reply

    For an atmospheric view of the church, Google ‘miserere tenebrae’ to see a wonderful musical piece performed in St Barts.

    March 30, 2020 at 9:05 pm

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