This part of London boasts a large number of sites of interest, too many in fact for us to take in on this tour: St Clement Danes, St Mary le Strand, the Palace of Justice, the Courtauld Institute of Art and Somerset House, with another great centre of learning next door: King’s College, a house of formation for generations of clergy as well as a remarkably influential university college in its own right, and other places besides; we only have time to take in a couple of sights.
Standing in the midst of the Strand, there is the architect James Gibbs’ earliest triumph: St Mary le Strand. He was barely 30 when the commission to build the first of Queen Anne’s 50 churches, and one of the most significantly placed, was given to him. Given its location, the church commissioners were (for once) willing to spend a great deal of money on it, and no expense was spared.
The area did not always look as it does now and, until the earlier part of the last century, the church was knee deep in slums, which is why the lower level does not have anything in the way of windows, so as to keep out the noise of the street. St. Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge, you may recall, suffered from such a problem from the nearby wharf.
Gibbs is an interesting man in his own right. His generation (the one following immediately from Wren’s) had been rebelling to a certain extent, against the influence of Wren, but Gibbs remained fairly true to the master’s baroque principles, instead of becoming part of the Palladian school. This may be due in no small way to the time Gibbs spent in Rome, studying under the architect Carlo Fontana. He was a Catholic and a Scot on the quiet, and not very much part of the establishment (he was a Tory to boot), but he was a very capable architect, and we can see this in his work, which is scattered around London as well as not a few country houses. His most notable church is St. Martin-in-the- Fields, just down the road, he also designed the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, which we see ghosted behind him in his portrait.
Of interest is something that Gibbs didn’t build, but designed, which was the Queen Anne Pillar, sort of a cross between the Monument and Trajan’s Column. It was never built, but you can see the illustration:
Anyway, back to St. Mary le Strand. Its original dedication was a proper mediaeval English dedication: The Nativity of Our Lady & The Innocents, which became St. Mary Le Strand at about the time the church was built on its present location. It is a completely authentic Italian baroque interior, and one of the finest in London.
Interestingly, as a footnote, there is another Scottish Catholic associated with the church: Bonnie Prince Charlie. Legend has it that it was here in 1750 that he abjured his Romish religion and conformed to the church of England. Hermitage Day reserves all his finest nastiness for this sentence about the Young Pretender:
“The life of Charles Edward did not adorn either of the two communions to which he successively adhered, and in his squalid old age he reverted to the Roman obedience, and was glad to accept its bounty.”
Almost directly opposite St. Mary le Strand, stands Somerset House, with its immense courtyard and checkered history. The site started out as being granted to the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of Edward VI (boo, hiss). With his inevitable execution, the property fell into the hands of the crown, and it later, after having housed several royals, it became home to Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and Inigo Jones made various expansions, including a Catholic chapel, which was under the care of the Capuchins. The Civil War then happened the dastardly Roundheads tried to flog it, but to now avail, though sold the contents for a fairly considerable sum. It was about this time that it became headquarters for a government department: the army. This was the first salvo of a long relationship with government departments: the place after drastic rebuilding in the 1700s, following Inigo Jones’ original plans. The place then became home to various departments, not least the Inland Revenue who were there for 150 years under various titles, as well as births marriages and deaths and others.
Eventually it became its present incarnation, home to the Law school of King’s College and the Courtauld Institute, and the courtyard, formerly a car park for civil servants, was restored to stunning vista we see now. The Courtauld Institute is also home to a very important gallery and library, which is well worth a visit in its own right, as well as being home to the world-renowned Courtauld Institute.