Walk around Covent Garden Piazza and you will inevitably be drawn to the street performers who ply their trade there. Perhaps you will gravitate toward the west side of the piazza where a grand portico stands with an oddly-placed false door in the center. It will seem familiar to you if you have seen Pygmalion or My Fair Lady. There is a plaque nearby marking this as the spot for the first “Punch and Judy” shows in 1662 as recorded by Pepys. But how many realize that this is actually the rear edifice of one of London’s most notable churches?
In 1630, Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford was given permission to develop land that he owned north of the Strand. What resulted was the first of London’s formal squares – the Covent Garden Piazza. Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones to design three terraces of fine houses surrounding a piazza and a church on the west side of the square. This was to be the first entirely new church built in London since the Reformation. It is said that Bedford asked Jones to design a church “not much better than a barn.” Jones is said to have replied, “Then you shall have the handsomest barn in England.” Other famous London landmarks designed by Jones include the Banqueting House at Whitehall, the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Queen’s Chapel at St. James’ Palace.
Jones had designed the church with a great Italianate entrance with grand columns facing eastwards toward the piazza. When the Bishop of London insisted that the altar be placed against the east wall, the portico was destined never to be used as the primary entrance, and was substituted by two small doors on either side. Hence, the main entrance to the church is the West Door which is reached via Bedford Street through the graveyard.
The church was completed in 1633 at a cost of nearly £5,000 and was consecrated in 1638. It was originally considered a chapel within the parish of St Martin-in-the-Fields, but in 1645, when Covent Garden was made a separate parish, the church was dedicated to St Paul. In 1789, the church went through a period of restoration, but was damaged from fire in 1795. The church records and the pulpit carved by Grinling Gibbons survived and the walls and foundations remained intact. The church was re-consecrated three years later.
The area of Covent Garden has been associated with the theatre since 1663 when the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was established. Inigo Jones himself, while the first important early modern architect, had strong ties to the theatre. He introduced moveable scenery and the proscenium arch to English Theatre and staged over 500 productions from 1605-1640, many in collaboration with Ben Jonson. When the Covent Garden Theatre (now the Royal Opera House) opened in 1723, this position was solidified. Today, Covent Garden is the heart of London’s Theatreland.
Notable associations with the church include J.M.W. Turner and W.S. Gilbert who were baptized here. The first known victim of the 1665 plague outbreak is resting for eternity in the graveyard along with Grinling Gibbons, Thomas Arne (composer of “Rule, Britannia”) and the conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. The ashes of theatrical Dames Ellen Terry and Edith Evans reside inside the church.
The theatrical community in London is a tight one and when someone from this illustrious group passes, St Paul’s Covent Garden, known more familiarly as the Actors’ Church, is where their lives are celebrated in a memorial service. It is a lovely, intimate space accommodating about 300. I have been present at more of these memorial services than I care to say, but the way in which the theatrical community has its chance to say “goodbye” is very special. More celebratory than funereal, it is not unusual for excerpts from plays, dance numbers or show tunes to have a place in the service. (To accommodate greater numbers, or if the stature of the personage is such that a larger church is warranted, memorial services will be held at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, or more rarely, Westminster Abbey.)
Walk into St Paul’s Covent Garden and you are immediately struck how light and airy it is. Looking around you will notice the memorial plaques dedicated to some of the most illustrious members of the theatrical community. Familiar names jump out such as Charlie Chaplin, Boris Karloff, Ivor Novello, Laurence Harvey, Stanley Holloway, Vivien Leigh, Terence Rattigan, Noël Coward and more. They are forever linked to this church and the theatrical community.
In 2007, the church founded its own professional theatre company, the Iris Players, which performs both in the church and in the tranquil, surrounding gardens. The Orchestra of St Paul’s is a professional chamber orchestra resident at the church. They hold a regular series at St Paul’s and perform all over the UK.
Next time you are ambling through Covent Garden, take a moment to stop and rest in the gardens of the Actors’ Church. If it is open, walk into the church. Soak in the architectural and theatrical history. You will be charmed by this quiet oasis in the midst of hustle and bustle.
The award-winning garden is currently undergoing restoration due to significant subsidence to the south courtyard. The church is improving the entire area which will include a children’s maze, new lighting and trees. When it is finished later this year, it will be named the Golden Jubilee Garden to honor the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation. The church is still short of its £100,000 target and if you are interested in contributing to the appeal, you can contact the church directly at firstname.lastname@example.org