London, UK: Many years ago, when I was a teenager with a travelcard, I would often get the tube on a Saturday afternoon and head into the City of London to explore, to figure out the labyrinth of grey-washed streets in my head, and I remember very clearly becoming a little obsessed with Christopher Wren, the famous architect with a big wig who built St.Paul's and who lived on the fifty pound note. I had just climbed narrow staircase inside the Monument, the large column commemorating the Great Fire of 1666, and I said to myself on the train journey home, oooh I am going to write a book about all of Wren's buildings in the City, no wait, I'll DRAW them all! That was more than twenty years ago, and I never did. But now in this age of high-speed sketchbooks and global availability of pens I figured the time was right to re-visit this modest and crazy dream (that's also the title of one of my favourite books, which is not about Wren but it could be). So from the sunshine of California I decided to, you know, organize a sketchcrawl. It was a really, really good idea, and a really, really fun day!
It was called "Sketching Wren's City", and every participant was provided with a hand-drawn map and a mission - go forth and find Wren. London's sketchers gathered, appropriately, at the Monument to the Great Fire. The Great Fire, you say, what’s that? Well in September 1666 a baker called Thomas Faryner in a street called Pudding Lane had the misfortune of having a fire start in his bakery one night, a fire deemed so insignificant that the Lord Mayor, awoken with the news of flames rising above the rooftops, famously said that, well, it could be extinguished by, er, female urine (he used a slightly coarser phrase). However, the fire spread, and kept on spreading, and no amount of wee (male or female) was able to make up for the lack of a decent fire-fighting service (if only they had fire hydrants in 1666, eh!). The City of London was destroyed, including the grand old St.Paul’s Cathedral, and a good number of churches. Enter Christopher Wren, and his fire-proof wig. He had been redesigning London on a grand scale since, er, before the massive unforeseen and entirely coincidental catastrophe that gave him his big break, and now here was his chance. The people of the City however did not want a grand urban-planned metropolis, they wanted their land in the same place thank you. So London kept its medieval street plan, and Wren got to work on the churches. It was a Wrenaissance, if you will. As a special thank you to London for giving him a Great Fire that basically set him up for life, Wren built the Monument, topped with a blazing golden ball; it was designed so that if the column fell over, the top would rest exactly where the fire started, which must have made the City planners a little nervous. Behind it in this sketch there is a brand new building called the Cheesegrater, because all of London’s new tower blocks have to have some silly name or other. If the Monument were built now it’d probably be called the Bunsen Burner or something.
I crossed over the busy traffic junction at King William Street and Cannon Street to sketch the couple below; to the right, St.Edmund King and Martyr, and to the left, the rather unassuming St. Clement’s Eastcheap. St. Clement’s…now where do you know that from, ah yes the famous song, “Oranges and Lemons”. This is the St.Clement’s of the song, not St.Clement Dane (the more famous one, located on Strand), and probably so alluded to because of the fruit cargoes offloaded from the riverboats nearby. Or maybe just because it kind of rhymes with lemons. I sketched in an alleyway. It’s not one of the more interesting pieces of Wren architecture. In fact it’s almost as though he couldn’t be bothered at all. “Oranges and lemons, do me a favour, I’ve got fifty-odd churches and a bunsen burner to build,” he was reported to have said, before designing the more handsome and dashing St. Clement Dane. This one is the forgotten little brother.
I met my good friends Simon, the actor, and Tamara, the director (this sounds like we were about to make "Urban Sketchers: the Movie"; hey that's a great idea, let's get on that! Casting ideas below; I want to be played by Michael Fassbender) and we sketched the wonderful domed church of St. Stephen Walbrook, one of Wren’s most beautiful churches. Oh, on the inside that is. It was closed this day, so we made do with sketching its, um, wonderful exterior, Starbucks and all. Still, it was very nice to catch up with old friends and do some sketching. St. Stephen Walbrook by the way was Wren’s dummy-run for St. Paul’s (spoiler alert, St. Paul’s is domed as well) and the inside truly is a delight to behold, ok it’s not the Aya Sophia or anything but it’s still pretty nice.
After finishing St. Stephen Walbrook I bumped into international-travelling urban sketcher Sue Pownall, and we walked over to St. Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside. The approach to this old church up the narrow Bow Lane is lovely, although the buildings are now modern you can just use a bit of imagination to fly back through the centuries and picture the narrow timber-framed houses leaning into each other over dirty streets, the sound of the Bow Bells echoing through the dark, bustling lanes. Yes, this is the church of the Bow Bells; the tradition is that a Cockney, a true Cockney, was born within the sound of the Bow Bells (and not Bow in East London as many wrongly believe), that is, within London. Cockney is synonymous with all Londoners now, London being much bigger than in Dick Whittington’s day, though of course he famously heard them from up on Highgate Hill, calling him back to his destiny as London’s Lord Mayor. It's a yarn all Londoners know. The Bow Bells were important to London not because of fanciful stories and cockney categorization, but because in the middle ages these were the bells that rung to sound the curfew, and the closing of the city gates. If they rang and you were outside the city, you spent a night sleeping in the filthy gutters of Southwark or Finsbury. These days you can just get a Night Bus, and it’s a similar experience.
Ok, skip to the end...St.Paul's Cathedral is Wren’s masterpiece, but its significance to London is much older. There has been a cathedral dedicated to St. Paul’s on this site, since St. Augustine brought Christianity to the Angles and Saxons. The fourth incarnation, a huge Gothic cathedral, was built in the twelfth century and was one of the largest buildings in Europe, but alas, the Great Fire of 1666. Along came Wren. As I’ve mentioned before, he had plans to rebuild London including St. Paul’s on his drawing board for several years before the convenient fire, and for London’s landmark cathedral he wanted not another towering spire but a large Romanesque dome, technologically advanced and rivaling the greatest buildings in Christendom. The wooden model of his first design is still on display, but it looks rather different from the final building. This was late seventeenth-century England, not a time to make your premier church look, well, too Catholic. It was shaped like a Greek cross, and the nave was not long enough; it just didn’t look 'English'. Wren went back to the drawing board, and in the end built the Cathedral we have today. It’s hard to think of more ‘London’ building than this. During the darkest days of World War II, when bombs flattened everything around it, the dome of St. Paul’s stood untouched, a symbol of hope for a city devastated. The ‘people’s church’ this was, and probably because of that, it was here that Prince Charles married Lady Diana in 1981 rather than at the traditional Westminster Abbey.
There were about thirty of us sketching London in total that day, many who had to leave before the end, but those of us who made it gathered at the steps of St.Paul's to look at each others' sketchbooks. It was so nice to meet old and new sketching friends, including fellow USk correspondent and extraordinary art-blogger Katherine Tyrell, and afterwards many of us gathered at the Old Bell pub on Fleet Street for some post-sketchcrawl socializing. Some truly beautiful sketches were made this day, an inspiration. I really love meeting sketchers in London, but especially after fulfilling an ambition I've had since I was fifteen. Thank you for coming along with me!
Why not try sketching Wren's City yourself? Here is a link to the hand-drawn map.
by Pete Scully