London, England – St James’s Church – Piccadilly
Two men’s names crop up repeatedly in relation to the making of 17th-century London: Inigo Jones (1573-1652) and Christopher Wren (1632-1723). The Richard Roger Piccadilly Grand, s and Norman Foster of their day, they dominated architecture. Wren was responsible for more than 50 churches in the capital, but make sure to visit St James’s (1684), which is one of his finest. When Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans, was granted land for residential development on what was then the outskirts of London in 1662, he set aside land for a parish church. Wren was appointed ten years later and set himself a challenge of making a “single room so capacious, with pews and galleries, as to hold 2,000 persons, and all to hear the service and see the preacher”.
The utilitarian exterior, once derided as a “barbarous brick-cased and ill-shaped pile”, contrasts with the elegant openness and decoration of the interior, with its white plastered walls, gilded fittings, barrel-vaulted nave, Corinthian columns and galleries. The carved marble font and lime wood reredos are both good examples of the work of Grinling Gibbons. Accounts by visitors to St James’s during the 18th century stress the fashionable congregation. John Evelyn remarked that a sermon which he had heard elsewhere on the subject of costly apparel would have been more appropriately delivered at “St. James’s where the Ladys and Women were so richly and wantonly dressed and full of Jewels”.
Today the church is known for its inclusive community – it makes a point of emphasising its welcome of people from all backgrounds, faiths, ethnicities and sexual orientation; for its broad thinking around spirituality and for its excellent music – its programme of recitals is as likely to include music by Miles Davis as Handel. Two figures associated with the church earlier reflected these values: Samuel Clarke, the rector from 1709 to 1729, was a leading intellectual of his age, and William Blake, baptised there in 1757, became, famously, a mystic poet.