Behind the Scenes at St Mary Le Strand
If you’ve walked along the Strand recently, there’s been a wonderful improvement. The surrounding area of St Mary Le Strand has been pedestrianised and this 300 year-old church can be fully appreciated.
I was recently invited to have a look inside (and go behind-the-scenes!) of this magnificent building.
History of St Mary Le Strand
Designed in 1713 by James Gibbs, St Mary Le Strand was one of the ‘Fifty New Churches’ for London. The plan was to solidify in stone the power of the state, glorifying the state religion, Anglicanism, and stamping out non-conformists.
On one hand this meant James Gibbs, who was Scottish and Roman Catholic, was an odd choice as architect.
On the other he had traveled and trained in Italy so was well qualified in producing a spectacular classical building.
Gibbs’ initial plan was even more Roman. Instead of a spire he envisaged a free standing column topped with a statue of Queen Anne.
Sadly her death in 1714 rather scuppered this plan and a more conventional tower and spire was added, the silhouette cutting an elegant figure along the historic processional route of the Strand.
There are further influences from Italy though, the semi-circular porch was inspired by Santa Maria Pace in Rome. You can see the resemblance (even if my photo is slightly obscured by the trees!)
Amazingly, St Mary Le Strand is relatively unscathed since its consecration on 1 January 1724.
It survived both World Wars as well as – scandalously – a threat of demolition in the early 20th century by the LCC who wanted to widen the Strand.
Inside St Mary Le Strand
The first thing you’ve got to do is look up!
St Mary Le Strand ceiling is a thing of wonder, designed by Chrysostom Wilkins. The strange first name is a nod to the 4th Century Saint John Chrysostom but the 18th century plasterer worked on multiple London buildings including the church of St Mary Woolnoth and 6 Grosvenor Square.
In 1723-1724 a Chrisostome Wilkins is also listed as Master of the Worshipful Company of Plaisterers.
The entire thing was moulded in plaster, so not cast in moulds, but shaped by hand.
The details are extraordinary with forget-me-nots picked out in gold enveloped by curling oak leaves. There are sunflowers and five-petaled roses.
As well as cherubs heads surrounded by swags of pomegranates and palms.
Given Gibbs’ political and religious leanings it has been speculated that the church is full of symbols supporting the Jacobite cause.
For a little historical refresher, 1688 marks the year of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ when the Catholic King James II was ousted in favour of his Protestant daughter Mary II and her husband William, Duke of Orange.
When neither Mary and William, nor their successor Queen Anne, provided protestant heirs the 1701 Act of Settlement was passed. This banned any Roman Catholic – or anyone married to a Roman Catholic – from inheriting the throne.
So it’s out with the Stuarts and in with the Hanoverian dynasty with George I crowned King of Great Britain on 20 October 1714. Not everyone got behind this new leadership and those that supported King James II and his descendant were known as ‘Jacobites’, the Latinised version of James.
If you recall, St Mary Le Strand was begun in 1713, rather in the midst of this religious and political turmoil so it’s sometimes suggested that the ceiling represents Gibbs’ true allegiance.
The five-petaled Rosa alba was a common Jacobite symbol, forget-me-nots might be a reference to not forgetting the Stuarts and sunflowers are through to represent loyalty as they resolutely follow the sun across the sky.
This might all be coincidence of course, but the conspiratorial clues are there if you’re so inclined!
Further decoration can be admire above the apse. The post-WWII stained glass windows are surmmounted with more swirling carvings but this section is carved in stone rather than plaster.
At the centre – written in Hebrew – is the abbreviated version of Yahweh, the name used for God in the Old Testament.
Below is the dove – spirit of God – surrounded by clusters of wheat and grapes, symbolising the bread and wine used during communion.
If you’re thinking that this epic interior seems a little over the top, it’s thought that this is in fact a paired-down version of what Gibbs had in mind.
The 12 plain wooden panels could’ve been intended to house paintings, just like Gibbs’ work at Wimple Hall Chapel with stunning trompe l’oeil paintings by James Thornhill.
Alas, in light of the sensitive political climate, it was probably deemed a bit too Catholic and the walls were left bare.
Go Behind the Scenes
During my visit I was invited to ascend up to the Triforium level to better appreciate the interior view.
Then – to my delight – I was offered a tour of the rooftop!
To get up there we made our way up a beautiful spiral staircase, reminiscent of the Dean’s Stair in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Like the Dean’s Stair by Christopher Wren, the steps are cantilevered – each successive step supported by the one below it – so they’re barely secured into the wall.
This is made evident in the way they swoop pass the windows, appearing to float in mid-air!
We continued up, walking past 18th century graffiti and through another tiny door…
Then we made it onto the roof!
From there we could enjoy great views towards the City, spying the steeples of St Clement Danes and St Dunstan in the west.
Looking West you can even spot Nelson atop his column in Trafalgar Square.
Protecting this Historic Gem
Getting this special closer look did also show how much repair work is needed for the internal ceiling and exterior roof.
The church has launched their Jewel in the Strand fundraiser, calling for supporters to ‘sponsor a flower’ to ensure this magnificent building can survive for more centuries to come. You can find out more here.
You can already see some of the restoration work on the original Georgian pews. Below you can see a section of pew with the layers of Victorian varnish removed.
The wood, so flat and opaque under Victorian paint, restored to reveal its delicate original texture.
Just imagine how wonderful the ceiling will be once it’s restored!
I hope you enjoyed this look inside and behind the scenes of St Mary Le Strand, the church has regular opening hours as well as plenty of events like musical concerts to enjoy. You can find out more on their website here.
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