I’ve had the pleasure of visiting several sites decorated by Jean Cocteau on the French Riviera, but I was surprised to find his work in the center of London. Just off Leicester Square (pronounced Lester Square) there is a church with a chapel decorated with Cocteau’s trademark drawings.
At first sight, it’s not obvious that this a church. It’s tucked between two buildings and isn’t a traditional church style. The unassuming entry leads to a round interior. This is because the original structure, built in 1793, was designed to display panoramas. It was popular entertainment at that time to visit 360° painted panoramas of European capitals or historic events. The display would be repainted regularly and people would come to experience “theatre in the round” before film or photography were invented.
Becomes a Church
In 1865, the panorama was converted into a French Catholic Church, Notre Dame de France, to serve the large French population in the area. The building was damaged by bombing during the war, but in 1941 it was repaired and resumed its religious function.
In 1953 the church was completely rebuilt on the old round plan. The foundation stone for the new building was brought from Chartres Cathedral in France. Two years later, the new church was complete and ready to be decorated. It was decided that this church should be a showcase of French sacred art. So all the art was commissioned from French artists – the most famous among them, was Jean Cocteau.
Cocteau Comes to Town
In 1956 Cocteau was in Oxford to receive his honorary doctorate when he was approached by the Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy, René Varin. Varin asked if he would decorate a chapel of the French church and Cocteau agreed. He went home and drew up the sketches and came back in 1959 to apply them to the church walls.
Cocteau was well known in the UK for his films, poetry, books, etc. and many people wanted to get a glimpse of him. Barricades had to be set up to keep people back and give the artist space to work. As Cocteau painted, he carried on conversations with the figures on the walls, asking them questions and telling them why they were being depicted in a certain way. He finished his designs in eight days.
Cocteau donated his time and talent and even paid his own accommodation. His only request was that his workmen be paid. His designs cover the three walls of the Lady Chapel. The three scenes – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion, and the Assumption – are done in Cocteau’s unmistakable style of strong lines and muted colors. And you can see Cocteau himself in the Crucifixion scene. He is on the left under the Roman soldiers, looking out at the viewer.
Until 2012 you could walk directly into the chapel to admire the work up close. Unfortunately, someone had the idea that he could improve Cocteau’s work. He added a circle of metallic gold paint around the blackened sun and then added his initials under Cocteau’s signature. In 2012 the murals were restored by the same team that restored Cocteau’s Fishermen’s Chapel in Villefranche-sur-Mer. They removed the vandalism along with years of dirt and grime. The restored chapel is still visible to the public, but now it’s protected behind glass panels.
It’s a lovely little church and certainly worth a look if you are in the area. This chapel is Cocteau’s only British commission. It’s at 5 Leicester Place, just off Leicester Square in London.
Although Cocteau is the best-known artists represented in the church, he is not the only one. Other artists whose work is in the church are: Dom Robert, Georges-Laurent Saupique, Boris Anrep, Charlotte Cochrane, Timur D’Vatz, and Henri Vallette.
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*All photos by Margo Lestz