It’s 10am in Smithfield. The streets are deathly quiet and devoid of any human activity, most surprising for such a central location one would think. I call this early, but for the Smithfield locale this is actually the end of the day. Almost bed time in fact. The meat traders are long gone – not even the echoes of their bartering cries can be heard. I find myself aimlessly wondering what to do with 2 hours to kill. Then I remember a friend telling me about the wonders of St. Bartholomew’s. Still mumbling to myself the ridiculousness of thinking a hospital might have anything to offer I abruptly come upon a crossroad sign whose authoritarian fingers point in all sorts of directions. There’s the hospital, then there’s the historic North Wing, the museum, the Great Hall, the King Henry VIII gates, St Bart’s the lesser Church and St. Bart’s the greater Church. I realize just then that the treasures of St. Bart’s have already proved me wrong before I’ve even embarked upon its threshold.
St. Bartholomew’s Hospital has continually provided health care longer than any other site in the whole of England. It also provides some of the last standing medieval remnants in London. After some research I find that there are two key figures intrinsic to the history of this place: Rahere, clerk to the household of King Henry I, and William Hogarth, painter and social satirist of the mid to late 1700’s. Rahere was a clerk and favourite in the court of King Henry I. He had climbed his way up from minstrel and jester to courtier before securing the role of clergyman. After the tragic deaths of Queen Matilda and the Royal children, Rahere threw himself into religious work and on venturing on a pilgrimage to Rome he fell gravely ill with malaria. He promised himself that he would build a hospital for the sick poor should he survive and when a vision of St. Bartholomew appeared to him on his return journey he dedicated the hospital to him. The Augustine priory and hospital were completed in 1123 on the marshy land of Smithfield. He became prior to the church before his death in 1143 and several present-day sightings claim that his ghost wanders around his tomb and the Lady Chapel within St. Bart’s the Great church.
William Hogarth was the painter, social commentator and graphic satirist most famous for his print of Gin Lane and Beer Street. He was actually born in St. Bartholomew Close in 1697 and baptized in St. Bart’s the Great. He maintained a great affinity with the place where he grew up, for when the governors began rebuilding the North Wing of the hospital in 1730 he heard rumours that the commission for two great murals had been awarded to the Venetian artist, Jacopo Amigoni. Hogarth immediately offered his services for free in a bid to prove that the English could paint classical just as good as the Italians.
‘Christ at the Pool of Bethesda’ was completed first on a stretched canvas in a studio in St. Martin’s Lane and was erected in April 1736. The second mural, ‘The Good Samaritan’ was painted ‘in situ’ so that the tones in both pictures would coordinate with each other. The artists’ scaffolds were finally taken away in July 1737. It is still situated on the main staircase that leads up to The Great Hall of the North Wing and is an unexpected surprise that really catches you unaware. The paintings are magnificent even though steeped in a subtle and reverent light. Your head is forced into awkward positions as you follow the turns of the stairs and only on the top landing are you finally able to pause and take it all in. Hogarth was made a governor of the hospital from his gift of paintings. As you enter the immense Great Hall itself, you can observe all the lists of governors who have donated to keep St. Bartholomew’s running.
Next to the North Wing is St. Bart’s-the-Less, the official Anglican church of the hospital. Having undergone many reincarnations since 1123 there is a real mix of old and new. The oldest surviving piece of this church is the bell tower, which hails back to the 15th century. It’s only when you re-emerge from beneath the Henry VIII gate and take a sharp right that you can totally immerse yourself within the medieval darkness of the Augustine priory, St. Bart’s-the-Great. One of the oldest churches in London it is a most uncommon survivor that has endured many of London’s fires. It has that rare gift of being both diminutive and breathtaking, majestic yet not imposing or pompous.
Philip Stewart is resident verger at St. Bartholomew the Great. He corroborates that the church “has an astonishing range of effects on the visitors…you see tears, open mouths, goose bumps and exclamations in several languages”. He goes on to add that the serene atmosphere gives a definite transformation for most people and even non-believers comment on the great energy they sense in the church. Philip is actually native from the USA and came to London only 4 years ago. He quickly formed an attachment and harmony for not only St. Bart’s the Great but also its surrounding area of Smithfield. Without even asking he gives me the grand tour pointing out all the things a lazy eye would miss: original Norman structural features; the spot where Samantha Morton gets her head chopped off as Mary Queen of Scots in the Film ‘Elizabeth: The Golden Age’; the best view for taking pictures (the organists’ seat); the font where Hogarth was baptized; or how the film crew of the recent ‘Sherlock Holmes’ film totally reinvented the layout of the church to make a new altar seeing as it would have been sacrilege to film on the real one. It slowly sinks in that I’ve seen this church in many, many films. This was famously the church where Hugh Grant decides not to marry ‘Duckface’ in ‘Four Weddiings and a Funeral’. Philip goes on to say that however disrupting filming may be to the tranquillity of the church, it is an essential asset to the revenue of the church and adds another element of interest for visitors. Although nearing retirement age, Philip says that he is keen to invest as much time possible in its wellbeing and development in the years to come.
As soon as I leave St. Bart’s I feel like turning around and going back in. This jaw-dropping cluster of treasures that spans history in religion, medicine, art and film makes me feel glad at once that I got up too late for Smithfield market. Most typical of ‘London’ that the wrong road should lead you to the right place.