Another in the series on historic churches in the City of Westminster …
By the time of the Great Fire of London in 1666, there were over a hundred parish churches and other places of Christian worship within and immediately without the walls of the City. There were a further five in the City and Liberties of Westminster.
St Paul, Covent Garden was originally built by the Palladian architect Inigo Jones for Francis Russell, the Fourth Earl of Bedford, between 1631-5. According to legend, on being told by Russell, “I would not have it much better than a barn”, Jones is reputed to have retorted, “You shall have the handsomest barn in England”. The cleric and theologian John Wesley, who preached here in 1784, described the church as “the largest and best-constructed … that I have preached in for several years”.
The church was undamaged by the Great Fire of London in 1666, lying beyond its western limit. However, it had to be rebuilt, by Thomas Hardwick, following another fire, in 1795-8. And it has been further modified still more recently.
Situated in the heart of the West End, the church has had a long association with the theatre and arts. The artist Peter Lely was buried here in 1680, the master wood-carver Grinling Gibbons in 1721, the composer Thomas Arne in 1778, and the actress Helen Terry in 1928. The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised here in 1775, and the librettist William Schwenk Gilbert – of Gilbert & Sullivan fame – in 1837. The Tuscan portico provided the setting for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”, written in 1913.
And it was in the neighbouring piazza in Covent Garden that Samuel Pepys witnessed “an Italian Puppet Play” in 1662. The event is commemorated by a Puppet Festival held here every year on the second Sunday in May.