Adventure-a-Day/ London/ United Kingdom

St Paul’s, The Actors’ Church in Covent Garden: Adventure-a-Day #29

The iconic St Paul’s Cathedral in London is just one church named for that saint. In Covent Garden, there’s a smaller, intimate St Paul’s Church, known as “The Actors’ Church” and lined with memorial plaques to many of the great names in British drama and music.

I walked through the church the other day. There are lots of names I don’t recognize, but when I see one that rings a bell, it sets off a whole sequence of associations. The lists below are in no particular order.

Ellen Terry, Gracie Fields, Stanley Holloway

Oil painting of young woman with golden hair sniffing a red flower, holding violets in her other hand

G.F. Watts’ painting “Choosing”. His then wife, Ellen Terry, was the model. (Courtesy National Portrait Gallery)

Ellen Terry (1847 – 1927) Beauty. At 16, bride and model of G.F. Watts (1807 – 1904), leading Victorian painter, then 40. It didn’t last a year. Portia, Beatrice, Lady MacBeth. Henry Irving’s leading lady and business partner. Lovers? I don’t know, and does it matter? They were good together, legendary. She had two remarkable children, and worked in theatre for almost 70 years. Sensuous oil paintings and imagination of a dramatic Victorian voice.

Gracie Fields (1898 – 1979) Pride of Rochdale, our Gracie. Able to make people smile, gave people a “bit of a song and a laugh”. Music halls, West End, movies. Entertained the troops. In the war, she moved to the US so her Italian husband would not be interned. Survived cervical cancer. Had no children of her own. Established the Gracie Fields Children’s Home and Orphanage near her home in Sussex, mainly cared for children of performers who were away on tour. Forever blonde and smiling. Black and white, laughter, broad accent and warbly songs on old vinyl recordings.

Stanley Holloway (1890 – 1982) Londoner. Told a story like no one else. Young Albert Ramsbottom and the lion. So much talent: stage, screen, TV, recordings. A soldier of the First World War, enlisting at 25. After that war it could not have been easy to be cheerful. A long career, much loved. Eliza Doolittle’s father in My Fair Lady. A gentle, slow Northern accent when telling the story of Albert and the Lion. Never letting on that something might be amiss. Audio. ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle.

Interior of a classic church with warm light from chandelier, white ceiling with gold decoration, dark brown pews

Inside St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, “The Actors’ Church” (Photo credit Jill Browne)

Boris Karloff, Margaret Rutherford, Noel Coward

Boris Karloff (1887 – 1969) Have I really ever seen him in a film, or do I just know his legend as a star of horror films? The real Frankenstein, to movie watchers. Organ music. It lives.

Margaret Rutherford (1892 – 1972) Miss Marple she was, but also Mrs. Danvers and Lady Bracknell. She must have been one of Nature’s most resilient people, if her biography on Wikipedia is accurate. (Both parents seriously mentally ill; mother suicide; father killed his own father before Margaret was born, was institutionalized again when she was 12.) Persistent. Started acting at age 33. Calm, methodical, black and white and proper.

Noel Coward (1899 – 1983) Genius smooth-talker style-setter playwright, songwriter, actor and tax exile. Smoking jackets and long cigarette holders. Very flat, Norfolk. The man must have worked night and day to produce the body of work he did. Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington. Mad Dogs and Englishman. Urbane, sophisticated voice.

Inigo Jones, Grinling Gibbons, Joe Davis

Richly detailed three-dimensional dark wood carving of a wreath of flowers and leaves

Grinling Gibbons wood carving at St Pauls Covent Gardent (Photo credit Jill Browne)

Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652) Built this church. Reformed English architecture. Introduced Palladian symmetry and elegance. Everyone knows his name. Plaques on buildings, entries in guide books.

Grinling Gibbons (1648 – 1721) Wood carver extraordinaire. Christopher Wren’s carver, the King’s carver. Multiple kings. Hampton Court Palace. St Paul’s Cathedral. Wood becomes petal-thin, flowers and wreaths of living things emerge. They have lasted for centuries already. The only wood carver I can name; the only one most people know of. Wooden petals in a king’s private rooms.

Joe Davis (1912 – 1984) Lighting Designer. Not someone whose name I recognized, but a pioneer in the field, and a founder of the Association of Lighting Designers. He is referred to with great respect, for example, as “legendary” and as “Marlene Dietrich’s bespoke theatrical lighting designer”. Someone has to make the magic, and make us not know they’re doing it.

 

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