"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Monday, 21 February 2011

Colourless Serenity

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral might not dominate the London skyline as it did in the past, having to compete with the likes of the Gherkin, the rapidly growing Shard and sundry other modern edifices, but it is still one of London's most iconic buildings.  It has been the inspiration for many writers, painters and photographers over the centuries. Sir Christopher Wren's elegant design replaced the old Gothic cathedral that stood on the site after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. Diarist John Evelyn described how the flames engulfed the cathedral:
"the stones of St. Paul's flew like Grenades, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them."  
Four centuries later the scene was repeated in the Blitz when the Luftwaffe firebombed the City of London in 1940.  One of the most famous and symbolic pictures of the time is the photograph showing St.Paul's rising proudly like a phoenix from the ashes above the devastation inflicted by the bombing raid....

St. Paul's Cathedral in the Blitz, Herbert Mason

But for me the most evocative image of St Paul's is Bill Brandt's photograph of the cathedral in the moonlight, part of his series documenting London during the blackout, which combines a kind of forlornness coupled with majesty....

St. Paul's Cathedral in Moonlight, Bill Brandt

Canaletto depicted the newly built St. Paul's with the river in the foreground in his own inimitable style, making it look like a scene from Venice....

The River Thames with St. Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayor's Day, Canaletto c.1747-8, 

Its dome has dominated the skyline for four centuries, a fact noted by Virginia Woolf in The London Scene, a collection of articles originally written for the magazine Good Housekeeping in the 1930s where she compares St. Paul's with Westminster Abbey. 
"It is a commonplace, but we cannot help repeating it, that St. Paul's dominates London. It swells like a great grey bubble from a distance; it looms over us, huge and menacing, as we approach. But suddenly St. Paul's vanishes. And behind St. Paul's, beneath St. Paul's round St. Paul's when we cannot see St. Paul's, how London has shrunk!" 
 It is indeed difficult to get the measure of St. Paul's unless you view it from across the river, its very immensity seeming to undermine all attempts to grasp it.

She compares the faceless, jostling crowds in the streets with the monumental calm and bulk of St. Paul's:
"..behold how we jostle and skip and circumvent each other in the street, how sharply we cut corners, how nimbly we skip beneath motor cars.  The mere process of keeping alive needs all our energy.  We have no time we were about to say, to think about life or death either, when suddenly we run against the enormous walls of St. Paul's.  Here it is again, looming over us, mountainous, immense, greyer, colder, quieter than before."

Novelist Monica Ali follows in Woolf's footsteps in a short essay After Wolf, wandering the same streets and taking in the same sights, 'catching at thoughts and impressions'. She notes Woolf's description of St. Paul's as 'august in the extreme but not in the least bit mysterious' and observes that:
"Mystery is still in short supply, though for different reasons now. Heritage Inc has snuffed what mystery remained. St.Paul's has a corporate identity, a corporate colour (red) and all the many signs are multilingual and very smartly designed. It seems, too, to have a corporate voice which speaks in warm and friendly tones, the kind of customer-centred "care" that we have come to expect. "St. Paul's audio tour. Try me!" "Thank you for visiting us. We hope that you leave the Cathedral inspired and refreshed and will return again one day." 
This is probably the price we have to pay to maintain our heritage these days - our experience of the city's great monuments seems to be sanitised and homogenised to such a degree. Woolf characterises St. Paul's splendour as residing in its 'colourless serenity' and claims that on entering the cathedral we undergo a 'pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort'.  Unfortunately on this occasion I wasn't able to share this experience as I felt disinclined to fork out £14.50 for the rather hefty entrance fee - it seems they even charge for entry into heaven these days!

1 comment:

  1. a fine detail aspect of London you did choose: St. Paul -literally spoken- in different lights - fascinating the Canaletto- view- San Salute in London, what a lovely imagination! - now in struggling competion with other modern icons and cranes... - fine photo-'fragments' of the dome whose 'immensity' can hardly be captured, indeed - extreme entrance fees- unbelievable! (Cologne Cathedral: gratis entrance- St. Peter in Rome?)- I need some time to study your essay preciserly - so many interesting quotations - you are a really educated person- yes, I myself am convinced we might see more after having listened to some authors and their experiences like Virgina Woolf...