Vicar of St Luke's holding the weather vane from the spire

Vicar of St Luke's holding the weather vane from the spire

Ticket for an organ recital at St Luke's Church

Ticket for an organ recital at St Luke's Church

Altar in St Luke's Church

Altar in St Luke's Church

St Luke's Church

The story starts in 1711, when the pious Queen Anne gave assent to her Tory government for the passing of the Fifty New Churches Act, intended to provide new churches in the burgeoning suburbs in and around the cities of London and Westminster.

'On top of the church there's a brass weather vane, and people in the area thought it was a louse, that's why they called it Lousy St Luke's ... When they took it down, I had a look at it; it has a beautiful red eye. After all these years, the truth has come out - it's a dragon.'
John Mason, local resident

In fact, only twelve were built as the succeeding King and Whig administration lost interest, and the confident overspending of the Act's Commisioners in the early years was reined in. Nonetheless, the Commissioners, who initially included Sir Christopher Wren, were reponsible, with their architects, for some of the most remarkable publicly-financed buildings ever built in England.

A strict budget

It is possible that the ambitious design of the churches commissioned early on contributed to the subsequent plight of St Luke's. The early years of the Act produced masterpieces such as Hawksmoor's Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George's, Bloomsbury, but the latter cost £26,000 to build, a figure spectacularly exceeded by the £40,000 needed for Thomas Archer's St John's, Smith Square. When St Luke's was eventually commissioned in 1727, the Surveyors, John James and Nicholas Hawksmoor, were given a strict budget of £10,000.

Running repairs

The new church was consecrated in 1733, but repairs were already being undertaken in 1734, and it was 'thoroughly repaired' in 1869, followed by underpinning in 1877, 1914 and 1951. None of this work arrested the calamitous subsidence that occurred after the dry summer of 1959, leaving some columns hanging from the roof that they should have been supporting. The building was declared unsafe, the roof removed and the church abandoned.

A fine organ

The weather wrought its destructive purpose, after many of the internal fittings found their way into other London churches. The fine organ, now in St Giles, Cripplegate, had attracted at least two well-known musicians to St Luke's: Henry Smart was organist from 1844 to 1865, and much of his church music, including eight tunes in Hymns Ancient and Modern, continues in use today; and in the 1950's Basil Ramsey, who was also editor of The Musical Times, arranged for the Church to be used by the BBC for recordings of organ recitals and concerts.

James or Hawksmoor?

The authorship of the design of St Luke's remains a subject of scholarly debate. Papers in Lambeth Palace show that the Commission Surveyors were asked jointly to produce a design. The similarity of the main body of the church and its lost interior to St George's Hanover Square, would point to the hand of John James, but the stone obelisk (described as a 'superlative conceit' by today's leading Hawksmoor scholar, Kerry Dowes) suggests an architectural imagination of Hawksmoor's stature - his interest in obelisks is well known from the unexecuted design for St Giles-in-the-Fields and his work at Blenheim and Castle Howard.

The spire, incidentally, has revealed an interesting story. Records show that there was an 'extra allowance in changing the scaffolds to flute the obelisque after it was erected'. So architects changed their minds then, too! On close inspection we discovered that the combination of erosion and fluting had greatly reduced the thickness of some of the outer layer of stone, resulting in much unexpected additional work.

Axel Burrough is the director at Levitt Bernstein in charge of the design of LSO St Luke's, the UBS and LSO Music Education Centre



 
 
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