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A View of Christ Church Spitalfields

February 18, 2012
by the gentle author

This church is so big that I can hardly see it. Omnipresent and looming over my existence – as I go about my daily business in the surrounding streets – Nicholas Hawksmoor’s towering masterpiece of English baroque, Christ Church, Spitalfields, has become so deeply integrated into my perception that I do not see it anymore. Yet I can never forget it either, because it continually interposes upon my conscious by surprise, appearing on the skyline in places where I am not expecting it.

Equally, I can never get accustomed to the size of it, and it never ceases to startle me when I turn the corner from Bishopsgate into Brushfield St and spy it there across Commercial St – always bigger than I expect, bigger than I remember it. The church’s gargantuan scale makes it appear it closer than it is and – even though my mind’s eye diminishes it – the reality of it always surpasses my expectation.

In this sense, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece still fulfils its original function superlatively, which was to be an monumental marker pointing heavenwards and inducing awe among all those who dwell in its shadow. Constructed between 1714 and 1729 – by Act of Parliament – as one of an intended fifty new churches to serve London’s new communities, at a time when the population of Spitalfields was dominated by Huguenot immigrants, Christ Church’s superhuman scale embodied a majestic flourish of power.

Three centuries later this effect is undiminished, though now the nature of its presence is less bombastic and more elusive. Sometimes, especially at night, I look up at the great cliff face of it stretching up into the dark sky and I feel like an ant, but when I walk out from the portico and the vista of Brushfield St opens to me ahead, I experience a mood of elevation as if the world were a spectacle for my sole disposal. Mostly though, it is through the punctuations in my consciousness that I know it, like the finger of God poking into a painting in an illuminated manuscript. According to my own mood and the meteorological conditions, it conjures different meanings – whether berating me, instructing me, reminding me, teasing me or beckoning me – although the precise nature of the signal remains ever ambiguous, beyond the imperative to lift up my eyes to the sky.

Taking a stroll around the territory, I set out to photograph Christ Church from different places and record its ubiquitous nature in Spitalfields. Upon my circular walk, which I undertook clockwise, travelling south then west then north then east and south again, my path traced each of the contrasted social environments that exist within the bounds of this small parish. In turn, these locations proposed different relationships with my subject which I photographed rising over dumpsters, through the window of a sushi bar and even from an orange grove.

Once upon a time the spire of Christ Church had no competition – existing as the sole pinnacle – yet although it rises now to face its much taller neighbours in the City, it holds its own as undaunted and heroic as David facing Goliath. So this is how I choose to interpret this extraordinary building which is so big that I cannot see it anymore, as the manifestation of an indomitable spirit. A sentinel to inspire me in my own equivocal day-to-day existence.

From Bangla Town Cash & Carry.

From Bangla City Continental Supermarket, Brick Lane.

From the Seven Stars.

From an orange grove in Flower & Dean St.

From Petticoat Lane in the City of London.

From Thrawl St.

From Bell Lane.

From Whites Row.

From Bishops Sq.

From Itsu Sushi, Broadgate.

From Shoreditch High St.

From Quaker St.

From the Truman Brewery.

From Corbet Place.

From Hanbury St.

From Fournier St.

Please get in touch if you have a remarkable view of Christ Church from your window or roof, whether near or far, so that I may take a second set of pictures.

You might also like to read about

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

or take a look at these views of Christ Church

Anthony Eyton, Artist

Lucinda Rogers’ East End

or visit Nicolas Hawksmoor, Architect of the Imagination at the Royal Academy.

16 Responses leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Amazing to think that this edifice was built without the aid of electrically powered tools and every stone had to be hauled to the site by horse and cart, carved by hand, and lifted into place by mechanical means without the aid of a crane. Even when it was finished it didn’t have the benefit of electric lighting or pump driven heating. Looking at your picture taken from the Bangla cash and carry, the towering new building behind the church gives the impression that Mammon is winning, but somehow I think that Christ Church will be there long after the other buildings have gone.

  2. February 18, 2012

    I love this church, it is so beautiful, so elegant. Last year I was living in London for a while and I loved seeing it from the train, that spire against a backdrop of City buildings (something symbolic there…), as I came in from Walthamstow, just before the train goes underground to Liverpool Street St. I took a picture of it once, but it being a snapshot taken from a speeding train, it can’t compare to yours.

  3. John_F permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Very interesting prose (as ever…) – but it’s also great to see some mono images !

    Many thanks

    John

  4. Alison Day permalink
    February 18, 2012

    I have photographed this wonderful church before, it never fails to impress me. It is probably my second favourite church I have seen in London, the first being Wren’s St. Paul’s.

  5. Gary permalink
    February 18, 2012

    Nice work, what about a shot from a helicopter ?.
    If you can get into Kensington Palace and Tower Bridge it should be well within your capabilities. I think that mono conveys a grey building much better than colour.
    Another feather in your cap.
    Gary

  6. Mark permalink
    February 18, 2012

    great way to start my weekend, thank you!

  7. February 18, 2012

    An architectural where’s Wally.

  8. February 18, 2012

    It gives me the goosebumps when I think how many of my ancestors have been baptised, married and despatched from Christchurch Spitalfields.

    Thank you for the great photos.

  9. Susan permalink
    February 18, 2012

    How fitting that this ubiquitous spirit of your neighborhood will be the launch pad of “Spitalfields Life” — the book — in a few weeks. For just as Christ Church hovers at the edge of your consciousness only to burst forth unexpectedly around this corner or that, so too does your blog bring a shadow city to my everyday life. I’ll turn the computer equivalent of a corner and there it is, vivid, poignant or exuberant by turns, and sometimes much more engaging than the workaday world around me.

    I hope you have a wonderful book launch in that wonderful church. I’ll be waiting here in California for a photo recap of all the festivities.

  10. Emily permalink
    February 19, 2012

    Thank you, GA… This reminds me of Hiroshige’s series of Mt. Fuji views – wonderful!

  11. jeannette permalink
    February 20, 2012

    this is wonderful, very like the blind man describing the elephant they’re feeling. (an elephant is like a fan, says the man feeling its ear. an elephant is like a tree, says the one feeling its leg. etc.)

    and the steeple visible through thick and thin to all who work within the sound of its bells reminds me of this:
    http://www.jesuswalk.com/greatprayers/images/millet_angelus723x600.jpg

    thank you.

  12. TokyoDon permalink
    February 20, 2012

    This made me realise – all over again – what a special area Spitalfields is, and how much my own life has been intertwined with it. Everyone of those shots, I recognised. Reminded me that I miss home. Thankyou, GA.

  13. Grant Fleming permalink
    February 23, 2012

    Im East London born and bred, and for me this is easily one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world. Somewhere very close to my heart.

    From Flower and Dean I see that spire every day, it never fails to lift the spirits.

    A great idea wonderfully realised, thank-you.

  14. Melanie permalink
    February 25, 2012

    I have a wonderful view of this church. I can sit in bed reading and gaze upon this spire. My view has changed slightly as the area is changing and an ugly building extension has obliterated the lower part of the spire. It is lovely on a sunday morning to see the church and hear the bells.

  15. Libby Hall permalink
    July 31, 2012

    Wonderful! What a lovely thing to have thought of doing.

  16. Mary Moulder permalink
    March 15, 2013

    I love to see the beautiful buildings, especially Christ Church, and know that my Rondeau and other family once saw these places and wondered at these places as much as I do. It keeps family history a living story.

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