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.
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.
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.
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).
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;
Image Credit: Acabashi / CC BY-SA 4.0
Skipping a few centuries ahead there’s another memorial near the hospital entrance you should seek out. The 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.
It’s the only public statue of King Henry VIII in London.
St Bartholomew the Great
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…
This is the tomb of Prior Rahere, founder of Priory, church and hospital of St Bartholomew. He died in 1143.
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…
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.
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.
More London Inspiration
Often listed as one of the greenest cities in the world, London is blessed with 8 Royal Parks and surrounded by woodland. However, I've made a list of the more esoteric green places to visit in central London, spots with an interesting tale or simply in an unexpected place....