Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

A Master of the English Baroque



Rob Hardy


The strange architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor, particularly his churches in London, has survived neglect and the Blitz, but more importantly, they have survived their author's disparaged reputation. The buildings and the reputation are the two subjects of From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor (Reaktion Books) by architectural historian Owen Hopkins. Turning an architect's reputation around takes several generations; for Hawksmoor, it took a couple of centuries for him to be recognized as one of the greatest and most original of English architects. Hopkins is a fan of the buildings, and is good at explaining how strange they are, and how they must have been especially so for Hawksmoor's contemporaries. For us, they are old and come with the respect we attach to old buildings, although that respect was not always paid to these oddities. In a very peculiar outcome, Hawksmoor's name has become famous because he has in the past few decades been fictionally depicted as a magus or occultist who instilled murky black magic into his buildings. The strange twists of fame are an important theme here.



Hawksmoor ought to be appreciated for his admirable factual characteristics. He was born in 1662, the son of a smallholder in Northamptonshire, and no one knows what sort of initial education he got. He became a clerk in his homeland, but must have showed some talent for buildings, because at age eighteen he was taken on as a clerk by none other than Christopher Wren. He learned his craft in this office, working on Wren's buildings like St. Paul's Cathedral and Chelsea Hospital. He collaborated with John Vanbrugh on Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. He had his own independent practice in which he designed parts of Westminster Abbey and of All Souls College in Oxford.




He also designed six churches in London, which are the buildings most closely considered here. They were part of the act passed by Parliament in 1711, the "Act for the building of Fifty New Churches in the Cities of London and Westminster or the Suburbs thereof." There are the two square towers of St. Mary, Woolnoth, fused together above an imposing facade of Corinthian columns, the whole mass lifted high above a solid entrance. The entrance of Christ Church, Spitalfields, is under a broad, three-stage tower of Tuscan columns and a Gothic steeple. The stepped tower steeple of St. George's, Bloomsbury, is based on a description of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and is topped with King George I in Roman dress. St George-in-the-East has an octagonal spire and giant coffin-shaped keystones above its windows. St. Anne's Limehouse has Corinthian columns circular and square, and some of them jut out at strange 45 degree angles. St Alfege Church, Greenwich, is capped at its corners and at the top of the gable with huge bollards shaped as funereal altars.



Hopkins traces the style of these buildings from the architecture of the Primitive Christians, through native British Gothic, although there are no flying buttresses or pointed arches. These are distinctly Baroque buildings. His master Christopher Wren produced Baroque with rationality; Hawksmoor is Baroque with mystery. There are weird shifts of arrangement or scale, and the masses and volumes are handled in novel ways. The buildings are not like any others, and the critics in Hawksmoor's time and afterwards knew it. They are "mere Gothique heaps of stone, without form or order," said one. One church is called "a mass of piled-up plagiarism" because Hawksmoor "never was able to refine his native coarseness." Hawksmoor was never coarse; perhaps given his lowly origins and lack of academic credentials, he remained modest, but he was admired for his candor and honesty. Those who worked with him regarded him with great affection.



Before he died in 1736, however, the Palladians came into the architectural fashion of order and restraint, and condemned Hawksmoor's work as eccentric, irrational, and capricious. Hawksmoor's reputation fell, although the churches stood. Some of the churches almost fell, not so much from the bombs of the World Wars, but from enemies within: church authorities like the Bishop of London and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. As London expanded and the railways took the populace to the suburbs, the sizes of congregations within the buildings dwindled, and the church organization sought to free itself of underused buildings, and by the way, sell their valuable land. It was touch and go, and Hopkins tells scary stories of how the buildings were nearly lost.



In the twentieth century, British architects saw the buildings with new eyes, and set upon Hawksmoor's rehabilitation. Many of the churches were lovingly restored. They also were inspiration to architects like Lutyens and even the brutalist Denys Lasdun. Hawksmoor's fame got its biggest boost from an unexpected source. Perhaps it is fitting that the creator of these weird and original buildings would become famous in fiction. Peter Ackroyd drew upon the strangeness of the buildings to imagine in his 1985 novel Hawksmoor that the architect had been a mystic who used satanic practices including human sacrifice as part of the construction of his buildings. The famous graphic novel and movie based on it, From Hell, continued this line of thought, with the placement of the churches said to form a pentagram and thus affecting the horrific crimes of Jack the Ripper.



The fictional (and fictitious) depiction of Hawksmoor points out that there is no other architect that might have been the starting point for such departures. "Few if any other architects have produced work that is so singular, so obviously out of the ordinary, so dominant over their murky and overlooked locations," Hopkins writes. His book is full of pictures (of course, not enough) to illustrate his appreciation for the strange buildings and for the strange fate of the reputation of the architect. Hawksmoor's reputation, readers of this admiring volume will agree, will never fall again.





back to top






Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email