Dragons, lions and unicorns

Saturday, September 21st 2013

This weekend is Open House weekend in London, when a number of buildings, not normally accessible to the public, are open for us to visit them. Passing through Bloomsbury on the bus today, we saw that St George’s Bloomsbury was participating in the scheme and had thrown open its doors. We had had it in mind for some time to visit this church and quickly scrambled off the bus in order to go and see it.

The church is famous and there is plenty of information about it readily available online so I will just say that it was designed by that prolific architect of churches, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was consecrated in 1730. A feature of interest is the tall, tapering tower, said to be modelled on the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. On the top is a statue of George I in Roman dress but, more interestingly from my point of view, are the heraldic beasts lower down, two lions and two unicorns, taken from the Hanoverian coat of arms.

Many sources of information on the church tell you that this tower can be seen in Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane but forget to tell you that the beasts we see today are not the originals. It seems that the Victorians considered the beasts too trivial for church decoration (though the preposterous figure of King George dressed in Roman garb was apparently acceptable) and had them removed. When the church was recently refurbished, the heraldic beasts were restored but new ones had to be made. They are by Tim Crawley, already famed for his work in ecclesiastical contexts. They can be glimpsed in the photo below and you will see other photos here and here.

St George's Bloomsbury
St George’s Bloomsbury
Spire and portico

One of the problems of Open House is that it has become very popular (as it deserves to be) and this means that the venues open to view are often uncomfortably crowded, making it hard to move around and harder to get good photos. Fortunately, that was not the case here as there were relatively few visitors apart from ourselves.

General view
General view
The singers got in the way

As you enter the church and receive your first sight of the interior, the view is  impressive. The central space is completely open and unobstructed by pillars or other kinds of support. In this huge space, the altar seems unusually small, though the dark-coloured reredos stands out. We were permitted access to most parts of the church but the altar area was occupied by a group of six singers who, quite frankly, got in the way, making it difficult to view and photograph parts of the church. I also found their quirky woof-woof style of singing rather irritating with its emphasis on cleverness at the expense of beauty and musicality.

The Chandelier Sculpted relief

The huge chandelier naturally draws your gaze with its luminous beauty. Made in the 17th century, it originally hung in a church in the Netherlands and then found a home in the main entrance of the Victoria and Albert Museum. How it made that transition, I do not know, an interesting point on which the notes handed to us at the door remain silent. St George’s now has it on long-term loan from the museum.

Set piece with cross

An expert in church architecture and furnishings would be able to give you an explanation of the objects and features on view. I am no such expert, however, and will content myself with showing you some of the pictures I took, commenting only where I have comments to make.

Stained glass window Stained glass window

Some of the church’s windows are of stained glass and some are plain glass, though leaded.

Heraldic beasts
Heraldic beasts
One of two models

On widow sills we saw what appear to be two models of the heraldic beasts of the tower. One is shown above. I think these must be preliminary sketches, as it were, exploring ideas for the finished design. For example, compare the unicorn seen here with the unicorn above. In the final work, the unicorn looks decidedly nervous in the presence of the lion!

Censer Bell
Censer and bell

It’s always fun to find things tucked away in corners. Sometimes they are forgotten objects but I am sure these articles are commonly put to use. How and when is something that the church-goers among you might know.

Little used?

The church has two galleries and we were permitted access to one of them. This, and the state of the gallery itself, suggests to me that they are not much used these days.

Gallery staircase
Gallery staircase

You climb to the gallery by the staircases, one at either end. These are spiral to save space. Something I always admire in such staircases is the hand rail. The carpenter who made this knew his stuff because it follows the curve of the stairs exactly and also twists to keep its form at every point. That is true workmanship.

View from the gallery
View from the gallery

The gallery provides a different view of the body of the church and again, here, the chandelier is a striking main feature.

Deliver your homily here
Deliver your homily here

Back on ground level, we had a look at the pulpit, from which 283-years’ worth of hot air has been expended,

Altar and reredos
Altar and reredos

managed to take a sidelong photo of the altar, working around the singers, and

Carved capital
Carved capital

admired the skill and artistry that has gone into carving a set on capitals of which the above is just one.

Icon of St George
Icon of St George

The church is dedicated to St George, a man whose very existence is in doubt and whose claimed actions have about them the whiff of self-serving fiction. Be that as it may, in this church you would expect to find signs and symbols of this rather pantomime character. Beside the lectern with found this icon or eikon1 of the saint which combines traditional and modern elements (note the words “BUS STOP” at the bottom) to form a rather picture-book result.

We could also have visited the undercroft but felt we had spent enough time here and assuaged our curiosity about the place. We moved on to see other sights and if I have time, I will describe these in another post.

St Geroge's Bloomsbury
St Geroge’s Bloomsbury
Colonnaded entrance


1In the computer era, the word icon has gained a wide new currency quite divorced from its original meaning and for this reason, it may be preferable to use the alternative spelling, eikon, to indicate the traditional religious image.

Copyright © 2013 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Dragons, lions and unicorns

  1. WOL says:

    My brother, an erstwhile Episcopalian (The American version of the C of E) describes the use of the censer as “slinging smoke” which the Episcopalians do only on high holy days. The church has a nice clean Georgian feel to it. The position of the lion on the model you show is odd — to show him upside down. One wonders if there is a symbolism to it.


    • SilverTiger says:

      The design of the animals is certainly unusual. They look more like characters from a child’s story book than the sober beasts on coats of arms. The uniform definitely has an alarmed look. I like these figures.

      It is unusual for incense to be used in Anglican churches though some of them, those called “high church”, tend quite strongly towards Catholic norms.


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