St Pauls Cathedral graffiti
Often I step into the porch at St Pauls Cathedral to pause for a moment when I am passing on my way, walking between Spitalfields and the West End. Sometimes I am sheltering from the rain, sometimes I stand and recall the birdseed seller in the magnificent opening shot of “Mary Poppins”, sitting on the steps of St Pauls singing “Tuppence a bag” – but mostly the reason I take a pause here is to marvel at the eighteenth century graffiti.
It can take thirty years or so for marble from a quarry to harden to its final consistency, and this explains how the graffiti of eighteenth century London has become preserved in the marble surround to the central door of Wren’s cathedral. Here you will find innumerable names overlaid upon each other with dates from the latter half of the eighteenth century, many inscribed in an elegant flowing cursive script. It reminds me of the work of Cy Twombly.
Some inscriptions are higher than the human arm could naturally reach and so I surmise that people must have stood upon boxes or each other’s shoulders to incise these names with iron nails or pocket knives, up above the rest. My particular favourite piece of graffiti is the bird with the bald human head pictured below. I like to think this might be an apprentice’s caricature of some pompous overweight employer.
Mostly, people go in and out of the cathedral through the smaller doors on the either side of the porch. The tall central door is only open on special occasions, so few ever notice this hidden graffiti, written all those years ago with such grace by Londoners long-forgotten. It takes a while to accustom your eye to deciphering these feint calligraphic lines that are almost unphotographable. For nearly twenty years now, I have been going back to look and each time some new detail becomes apparent. There is much more than I have been able to show you in these two pictures, so next time you are passing, be sure to take a moment to pause in the porch, take look for yourself and wonder.