07 November 2022
Saint Pancras Church, London,
and the Caryatids, inspired
by monuments in Athens
I have written in recent months how I had never visited Saint Pancras New Church near Euston Station in London. Like many people, I am always struck by the church and its two sets of caryatids, inspired by the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, and its vestibule and tower inspired by the Tower of the Winds in Athens.
However, I only managed to visit the church and walk around inside last week while I was visiting London and having lunch nearby in Woburn Walk with my ‘cousin’ Kevin Martin.
Saint Pancras New Church was completed 200 years ago in 1822, to serve what was then a fashionable end of Bloomsbury. It had seating for 2,500 people and cost £76,679 to build, making it the most expensive church to be built in London since the rebuilding of Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
The ancient parish of Saint Pancras once stretched almost from Oxford Street to Highgate. When Saint Pancras New Church opened in 1822, Saint Pancras Old Church, about 900 metres away, fell into disuse, and it was virtually in ruins by the 1840s. However, the industrial expansion of London brought in a new population, and the old church underwent a complete restoration in 1847-1848.
Saint Pancras New Church, which opened 200 years ago, was designed by a local architect, William Inwood (1771-1843), and his son Henry William Inwood (1794-1843). They also designed All Saints’ Church, Camden Town, then in Saint Pancras Parish, and which I plan to describe tomorrow.
The first stone of Saint Pancras Church was laid by the Duke of York at a ceremony on 1 July 1819. It was carved with a Greek inscription, which translates, ‘May the light of the blessed Gospel thus ever illuminate the dark temples of the Heathen.’ The builder was Isaac Seabrook.
The church was consecrated by the Bishop of London, William Howley, on 7 May 1822, and the sermon was preached by the Vicar of Saint Pancras, the Revd James Moore.
In their design of both All Saints Church and Saint Pancras, the Inwoods were inspired by classical buildings in Athens. Henry William Inwood visited Athens in 1819, and brought back plaster casts of details of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis and some excavated fragments.
At All Saints’ Church in Camden, the Inwoods based the tower on the Monument of Lysicrates in the Plaka; at Saint Pancras, they based their designs on the Erechtheion on the Acropolis, while the vestibule and tower were inspired by the Tower of the Winds or the Horologion of Andronikos Kyrrhestes in the Agora.
The Tower of the Winds dates from 50 BCE and was used in early Christian times as the bell-tower of an Orthodox church.
The tower also inspired the 18th-century Tower of the Winds on top of the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.
Saint Pancras Church has a Grade I listing as an important early example of Greek Revival architecture. It is mostly built from brick, faced with Portland stone. The portico and the tower are entirely of stone. All the external decoration, including the capitals of the columns, is of terracotta.
The pillars at the west end of the church are Ionic in style. The octagonal tower, modelled on the Tower of the Winds, also influences the shape of the domed central vestibule.
The impressive interior is also largely Greek in style and much of it is still as originally built. At the east end, Ionic columns rise grandly around the sanctuary. The original pews are still in place.
The high quality stained glass windows on both sides were added by the Victorians who also did some re-arranging of the interior.
The most celebrated features of the church are the two sets of caryatids that stand above the north and south entrances to the crypt.
The two sets of four caryatids are carved and draped female figures, used as pillars to support the entablature above their heads. They stand above the north and south entrances to the crypt.
They were modelled by John Charles Felix Rossi (1762-1839), but differ from the originals in Athens in that each one holds an empty water ewer and an inverted, extinguished torch, as a symbols of their standing guard over the crypt.
The massive figures are of terracotta, cemented together round pillars of cast iron. A close inspection reveals the marks where the sections of each caryatid were joined. The need to move them in sections led to the stories that when the statues arrived to be put in place, they were too tall to fit into the gap that they were to fill in the porticos. It is said the only way to install them was to either cut away or leave out the midriff of each figure.
Although some of the statues look squat when viewed from certain angles, others look serene and elegant. It all may be a matter of perspective.
Sadly, the metal clamps in the statues are now corroding, expanding and cracking the structure. A radar survey assessed the extent of the metal fractures last year (2021), and this will inform a planned restoration project.
The Revd Anne Stevens has been the Vicar of Saint Pancras since 2012. She was ordained in 1991, and has worked in parishes in Greenwich and Battersea, as chaplain of Trinity College Cambridge, and as the Director of Reader Training in the Diocese of Southwark.
The Revd Peterson Feital is the self-supporting Associate Priest. Born in Rio de Janeiro, he is the founder and CEO of The Haven+ London, a charity dedicated to supporting the emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing of the creative community in London.
The regular services at Saint Pancras Church include the Holy Communion at 8 am and Choral Eucharist at 10 am on Sundays and a mid-week Holy Communion at 1.15pm on Wednesdays.