The organ and the trumpeting cherubs
From the Survey of London
In 1690 the vestry petitioned the Queen to give the organ from the Roman Catholic chapel in Whitehall Palace to St. James's Church. It had been built by Renatus Harris for the chapel, which was opened in 1686; the front had been carved by Grinling Gibbons for £40 and it had been gilded by Giles Campion for £100. The chapel was gradually dismantled after the accession of William and Mary and in answer to the vestry's petition the Queen gave 'the Great Organ' to St. James's in 1691.
The vestry returned Her Majesty 'humble and hearty thankes' and raised a voluntary subscription for the organ's removal and installation. Proposals for this were received from (Bernard) Smith, who satisfied the vestry with his 'Assurance to performe the worke well artificially' and promised to have the instrument ready for playing by Christmas 1691. He was paid £150. 'Dr. Blow and Mr. Purcell' were invited to judge if Smith had performed his work well.
In 1695 Smith was appointed to keep the organ clean and in tune, at a salary of £10 a year (£10 less than he received at the Temple). On Smith's death in 1708 £10 owing to him was withheld from his widow in compensation for several pipes and stops which he had omitted during the reconstruction.
The organ had become greatly dilapidated by 1852 when, under the superintendence of Charles Lee, the parish surveyor, it was entirely rebuilt by J. C. Bishop. This was his 'last work and avowed masterpiece'. Bishop re-used the old pipes which 'the mellowing hand of time had rendered of more than ordinary value', and added a detached choir organ in front of the gallery. Messrs. G. and C. Bishop, herald painters to the Queen, decorated the organ, and the cost of the rebuilding and restoration was £1000.
The organ was damaged when the church was bombed, and had to be rebuilt. Messrs. Rothwell repaired it and in 1954 it was re-erected with a new console. The organ case was preserved, having been saved from damage by storage at Hardwick Hall during the war.
The first organist of the church was Ralph Courteville, recommended by the Earl of Burlington and appointed in September 1691 at a salary of £20 per annum. The Dictionary of National Biography assumes that he continued in office until 1772, but he resigned in favour of his 'kinsman', Ralph Courteville, junior, in 1729, being 'Infirm and unable to do his Duty'. His 'kinsman' Ralph or Raphael Courteville, junior, was organist from 1729 to 1772; he was very neglectful of his duties and it was presumably he who, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, took an active part in politics.
Gibbons's sumptuous organ case of carved and gilded oak dominates the west end of the nave and towers high above the choristers' gallery. This last is raised above the western gallery by four equally spaced Tuscan columns. The gallery front of oak is formed as an entablature surmounted by a high panelled pedestal, and it consists of three parts, each side curving with a concave sweep to meet the projecting centre, now fronted with the case of the choir organ added by Bishop in 1852. The pipes of the great organ are raised on a panelled chest, and the segmental headed front is flanked by pipe-towers and broken centrally by a taller tower. These three towers rest on corbels carved with cherub-heads, projecting from an enriched entablature with a fretted frieze. They finish with rich entablatures, having acanthus friezes, and the pipes are partly overhung with carved valances. Above each side tower stands a trumpeting cherub, and above the central tower kneel two cherubs holding a crown, while on the curving cornices between the towers are reclining angels, St. Cecilia's musicians, holding trumpets.