Damage to the church in 1941
During the Second World War, on the night of 19 March 1941, incendiary devices, dropped by enemy planes, became lodged in the roof causing a blazing mass of timbers and molten lead to collapse into the nave. The destruction seemed complete but fortunately the walls and tower were undamaged. The 1552 organ console was left intact, protected by its casing, and it can still be seen today. Restoration of the entire church proved possible, though costly. The work was entrusted to Professor Richardson RA (later Sir Albert Richardson PRA) who determined to follow the principles laid down by Hawksmoor.
Restoration began in 1946 and the church was re-dedicated in 1953.
The first task was to collect from among the debris every surviving fragment of capitals, cornices and plaster mouldings and to make full-scale drawings of these relics. Where possible, the original materials have been reinstated but some new and excellent work had to be carefully blended in with the old.
All the old wood recovered was cleaned by a special process, and this treatment has produced the glorious warm tone of the oak which is now seen in all its beauty. Much of the original carving was attributed to Grinling Gibbons. One or two of the Corinthian capitals now surviving in the supporting pillars of the galleries may be from the hand of the master, and his work in the chancel was preserved.
The pulpit is entirely new and is a copy of that destroyed in 1941; for reasons of expense, it was not possible to reproduce all the elaborate carving of the original by Grinling Gibbons and the new pulpit acts as reminder of the restoration that was carried out.
The Stuart Royal Arms are copied from fragments of the Coat of Arms destroyed in 1941; the supporters from the old pew were salvaged too, and are to be seen set on either side of the west arch.
Ceiling and Roof
The ceiling has been completely restored, and the oval enrichment accurately reproduced. The reconstruction of the ceiling required oak beams of 12 inches by 12 inches section; such timber was found at Hungerford in Berkshire, and 24 feet lengths were scarfed together in situ to form the six main 72 feet beams. This faithful reproduction of an18th century building technique is almost unparalleled.
The elaborate columns and cornices are the original Hawksmoor design which escaped the bombing. The main pilasters at the east end and the apse were originally painted by Sir James Thornhill who was also responsible for the work on the more famous Painted Hall of the neighbouring Royal Naval College. After the 1941 holocaust, it appeared that all Thornhill's work had been obliterated; but when the artist engaged on the restoration, Mr Glyn Jones, came to prepare the wall surfaces, he found that beneath the grime much of Thornhill's work remained on the pilasters. By minute study of Thornhill's other paintings, Mr Glyn Jones was able to reconstruct the exact technique Thornhill had employed and to discover the pigments he had used. So it has been possible to restore the original paintings both of the pilasters and of the trophies in the middle of the side walls. The roof of the apse presented greater problems; the remains of this remarkable example of Thornhill's illusionist painting were fragmentary. In recreating this design, Mr Glyn Jones had to follow the masterly balancing of the tones of the original so that, from wherever one views the result, the shadows appear consistent and the illusion of relief work is complete.