Prepare to be surprised by the impressive interior architecture of this 17th century church in the City of London. Here, Owen Hopkins, Director of the Farrell Centre at Newcastle University and author of our Christopher Wren London Map, explores its history and design...
St Stephen Walbrook is Wren’s most celebrated church – and rightly so. The simple exterior – indeed, the north wall is plain rubble masonry – gives little hint of the majestic space inside. The spire is the exception as with almost all of Wren’s churches. Where the church dates from 1672–1680, the spire is quite a bit later, begun in 1713, alongside the closely related spires of St Michael Paternoster Royal and St James Garlickhythe (which were all built by the same craftsman).
In terms of design all three are set behind a parapet and are conceived as semi-autonomous structures composed of three tiers that diminish in scale as they ascend. At St Michael’s the tiers are circular in plan; St James is more Baroque with four pairs of columns projecting at the angles; at St Stephen’s, which is in a sense an amalgam of the two, the pairs of columns reinforce the square plan rather than attempt to break away from it. On the second stage the columns are layered in a way that’s almost Mannerist and characteristic of several designs by Wren’s pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor. For this reason, the spires of St Stephen, St Michael and St James are often thought to be by Hawksmoor, though following an overall template set by Wren.
The interior, however, is all Wren’s own and stepping inside it is surely one of the most revelatory experiences in the entire City of London. Rising up the steep entrance stair one arrives quite suddenly at a light filled space over-sailed by a dome resting almost effortlessly on eight columns. Today, worship takes place ‘in the round’, focused on Henry Moore’s monumental stone-hewed altar controversially installed in the late 1980s. But in Wren’s day, the emphasis would have been on the east end, with the pewing arranged in a cross axis underneath the dome. The tension between the centralising emphasis of the dome and longitudinal focus on the east end is harder to discern with interior arranged as it now is, but it is still detectable in the odd conjunction of circular and oval windows where the side elevations meet the end ones.
The dome is one of three across Wren’s City churches, the others being the shallow painted dome of St Mary Abchurch and the more overtly neoclassical St Mary at Hill. The three are sometimes seen as Wren experimenting prior to designing the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, with St Stephen’s very much the direct prototype. Yet St Stephen’s dome is actually far more elegant and resolved, and where St Paul’s dome is sometimes quite gloomy, here it is bathed in a wonderfully even, almost ethereal light.
St Stephen Walbrook website
Address: 39 Walbrook, London EC4N 8BN
Location on Google Maps
London is shaped by Christopher Wren. From Hampton Court to Greenwich, Wren's works are woven into the physical fabric of London unlike those of any other architect. A selection of Wren’s churches and known works are featured on this two-sided map, with captions and an introduction written by Owen Hopkins and original photography by Nigel Green.