Hooked on Hawksmoor

Well, I am very late to this party but I became absolutely obsessed with the works of British Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) on my recent trip to London. Hawksmoor’s professional reputation was overshadowed in his own time–and long afterwards–by his association with two more prominent “gentlemen” architects, Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, but in the last few decades he seems to have emerged from their shadow. His oeuvre is impressive: under Wren he worked on St. Paul’s Cathedral, the naval buildings at Greenwich, several buildings at Oxford University, Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces and Westminster Abbey, the west towers of which were constructed according to his own design during his tenure as Surveyor General, and he collaborated with Vanbrugh on both Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. I’ve been to all of these places, but I never associated any of them with Hawksmoor, or thought about Hawksmoor at all, until I saw his Christ Church, Spitalfields, early last week. From that point on the week belonged to Hawksmoor: I scouted out his six surviving London “Queen Anne” churches commissioned by the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1710, really looked at the Abbey’s west towers for the first time, and looked on the stately buildings of the Royal Naval College at Greenwich with a new appreciation.

Christ Church Spitalfields

Hawksmoor 1

Christ Church Spitalfields 1950s

Christ Church Spitalfields 1909

21. Christ Church, Spitalfields, London: by Nicholas Hawksmoor 1964 by John Piper 1903-1992

Christ Church, Spitalfields, shining like a beacon at the end of very busy Brushfield Street, afternoon and early evening (after its long restoration, completed in 2004), and in the 1950s and 1909; John Piper, Christ Church, Spitalfields, London: by Nicholas Hawksmoor, 1964, Presented by Curwen Studio through the Institute of Contemporary Prints, Tate Britain.

I just can’t stop looking at Christ Church! And I’m not alone: it has inspired scores of artists and photographers, and authors such as Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd, and Alan Moore. In the poem Lud Heat (1975), which inspired Ackroyd’s (crime? suspense? mystery? not sure how to categorize it) novel Hawksmoor (1985), Sinclair envisions a “psychogeographical” alignment between all of the Hawksmoor churches, and later calls them “eternal” as opposed to the “shimmering trash” of the Docklands (in this great video). Sinclair is absolutely right; these churches do stand out, all of them, not just because of their stature and their distinctive spires but also because they present a rather odd combination of classical austerity and weight.You also have the sense that Hawksmoor was building temples rather than churches: these houses of worship don’t look precisely Christian! One of his six surviving London churches, St. George’s, Bloomsbury, is essentially a classical temple with a steeple on the side rather than the center, at the top of which is not Saint George but King George (I–in Roman dress, presumably he is the Saint), accompanied by a lion and a unicorn. It’s no wonder that our modern secular age admires Hawksmoor, the architect and the Freemason.

Hawksmoor St. Georges

Hawksmoor St. Georges 2.jpg

Hawksmoor St. Georges 3

Hawksmoor’s St. George’s Bloomsbury, completed in 1730; restoration completed in 2006.

Well, I do believe St. George’s was Hawksmoor’s last London church; his earlier ones do appear a bit more traditional/ecclesiastical but still display that distinctive Hawksmoor edge of composition and detail. Here are the rest of his churches, plus two more that he collaborated on with John James: St. Luke’s Old Street in Islington (which features an obelisk steeple!) and St. John’s Horsleydown in Bermondsey, which was demolished after sustaining bomb damage during World War II.

Hawksmoor St Alfrege

Hawksmoor St. Alfrege

Hawksmoor St. Alfrege 3

St. Annes Limehouse

St George in the East

St George in the East rendering BL

Hawksmoor St Mary Woolnoth City

450px-St_Lukes_Islington Hawksmoor

Hawksmoors lost church Bermondsey

St. Alfege Church, Greenwich, 1712-1714 (with window details); St. Anne’s Limehouse, 1714-27 (on the grounds of which there is a pyramid); St. George in the East, Wapping, 1714-1729 (I did not have time to make it out to Wapping, so I have “borrowed” a picture from here and a drawing of the facade from the George III topographical collection at the British Library. Next time!); St. Mary Woolnoth, 1716-27, right in the center of the City of London (very wide and narrow steeple); Two collaborations with John James, 1727-33: St. Luke’s, Old Street and St. John’s Horsleydown, demolished after World War II (from the Collections of the Metropolitan Archives of London). Similar fluted spires, but St. John’s had a comet on top!

So we have all sorts of classical elements, combined with more whimsical ones: columns, pyramids, obelisks, unicorns, comets. Mathematical precision and clocks. I don’t think this adds up to anything particularly pagan, much less sinister (somehow Hawksmoor acquired the moniker “the Devil’s Architect”–I’m not sure if this is a creation of his time or ours): I just think he was a man of his time, which was of course the Enlightenment. Quite a modern man, who ascended to the heights of a gentleman’s profession on his merits alone and worked primarily for institutions rather than patrons. He was impressive and his work remains impressive. I’m not precisely sure what his creative contributions were relative to those of his mentor, Christopher Wren, but I really felt Hawksmoor’s presence at Greenwich, almost as much as Christ Church, Spitalfields: maybe I’m getting a bit “psychogeographical” myself! Unfortunately we don’t seem to have this particular field of inquiry in the States: we’re just not that attached to our built environment to get that introspective about it.

Hawksmoor Greenwich

Hawksmoor Greenwich 2

So now I’m home, with only a few Hawksmoor books to sustain me. I need more: so now I’m going about collecting more texts, and some images that rival, or at least capture, the magnificence of Hawkmoor’s buildings. I really like the work of Andrew Ingamells, who has rendered several of Hawksmoor’s churches in aquatint etchings, and I would almost kill for Pablo Bronstein’s Four Alternate Designs for a Lighthouse in the Style of Nicholas Hawksmoor (Bronstein also designed and commissioned the construction of an actual Hawksmoor beach hut in the form of a lighthouse at  Folkestone, which you can see here).

Ingamells Hawksmoor Collage

Hawksmoor Collage2

Hawksmoor Pablo Bronstein

Hawksmoor books

Trinity and Hawksmoor

Aquatint etchings of Hawksmoor churches by Andrew Ingamells, from a selection here; Pablo Bronstein’s “Four Alternate Designs”, Herald Street Gallery;  Architectural and historical analysis from Owen Hopkins and Mohsen Mostafavi and beautiful black and white photographs by Hélène Binet; just finishing up Ackroyd’s engaging Hawksmoor this morning!


6 responses to “Hooked on Hawksmoor

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