Nicholas Hawksmoor: a genius in his own right

Owen Hopkins rescues England’s least known architect from the shadows of Wren and Vanbrugh and gives him the prominence he deserves

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor Owen Hopkins

Reaktion, pp.344, £25, ISBN: 9781780235158

In the conclusion to his very substantial study of England’s least known and most misunderstood Baroque architect, Owen Hopkins discusses some of the modern folklore that has developed around Nicholas Hawksmoor over the past 40 years, showing how swiftly a myth can capture the public imagination. The bulk of this unevenly written, fact-packed book is devoted to discussing Hawksmoor’s life and work. The last chapter considers the myths which recently gained him a large public and, ironically, brought him the critical recognition he failed to receive either in his own lifetime or for almost two centuries afterwards.

A yeoman farmer’s son, born in Nottinghamshire in 1661, Hawksmoor joined Wren’s office at the age of 18. Rapidly learning his craft, by 24 he was earning two shillings a day as Wren’s assistant. Reliable, modest and affable, he worked on St Paul’s, Blenheim Palace and most of our great Baroque architectural projects. Before long he was designing full-scale buildings of his own. Encouraged by the fashion of his day to indulge his own tastes, his expression is, even now, considered eccentric.

As well as with Wren, he also worked closely with their mutual friend Vanbrugh and was admired by both. His plans were enough to secure him major commissions, but he remained marginalised, primarily because, unlike his associates, he was not a gentleman. Yet he designed six major east London churches, including St Mary Woolnoth, St Anne’s Limehouse and Christ Church Spitalfields, as well as All Souls, Oxford, and the towers of Westminster Abbey. Castle Howard, which became associated in recent decades with screen versions of Brideshead Revisited, was designed by Vanbrugh and, after his death, completed chiefly by Hawksmoor.

On the cusp of the Enlightenment, London was still a rather second-rate plague-ridden medieval town. The great fire allowed ambitious talents the opportunity to redesign its landscape, enabling the city to re-invent itself, reflecting the commercial, scientific, artistic and intellectual energy of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Paris was already perhaps the most beautiful modern capital in Europe, with its grand Baroque buildings dominating the city and its surroundings. De Brosse’s Luxembourg palace and Mansart’s Invalides were designed as displays of private and public power. They were no doubt familiar to Charles II who, returned from exile, would be comfortable with at least the earliest examples of the style and predisposed to favour those architects already committed to it.

Hawksmoor was admired for his candour, honesty and modesty and regarded with great affection by all he worked with and made a decent living, leaving some moderately substantial property when he died of gout in 1736. But in his lifetime the Palladians came aggressively into fashion, doing all they could to spoil his reputation. Long before he died they had condemned him as eccentric, fussy and old-fashioned and successfully expunged him from the public memory.

For decades Hawksmoor’s best work in London and Oxford was credited to the unfashionable Wren. He was dismissed as a relatively minor assistant, satirised for eccentricities like the statue of George II on the summit of the spire of St George’s, Bloomsbury. Considering him merely Vanbrugh’s assistant, Sir John Soane mocked him in verse:

When Harry the eighth left the Pope in the lurch,
His Parliament made him the head of the Church,
But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people,
Instead of the Church, made him head of the Steeple.

Hardly known at all as an architect in his own right, Hawksmoor had a few hesitant supporters by the early 20th century. Not until the past few decades. however. did his eclecticism attract the admiration of architects like James Stirling and Robert Venturi, who discovered inspiration and affirmation in him. There is little question, however, that he would not have been well known to the general public were it not for the visionary literary movement best represented by London writers fascinated by the likes of William Blake, in particular Iain Sinclair.

Working in the 1960s as a metropolitan gardener entrusted with the upkeep of churchyards, Sinclair found his poetic imagination sparked by Hawksmoor. It’s fair to say he began the Hawksmoor revival with his first substantial work, Lud Heat, which claimed supernatural links between the churches, in turn inspiring Peter Ackroyd to write his masterpiece Hawksmoor and Alan Moore his dark graphic novel, subsequently filmed, From Hell.

As a result Hawksmoor, though all evidence suggests he led an exemplary and conventional private life, became associated in the public mind with ley lines, freemasonry, satanic ritual and horrible murder in a London owing more to De Quincey, Dickens and Stevenson than to Wren and the Enlightenment. From the Shadows dispels those myths while taking admirable pains to describe the reality of its subject’s rich and idiosyncratic career.

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Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £25 Tel: 08430 600033. Michael Moorcock’s many books include Mother London and The Eternal Champion; his latest is The Whispering Swarm. 

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Show comments
  • Jambo25

    Is Nicholas Hawksmoor really that little known. I’m a resident of Edinburgh but I lived in London in the 60s and very early 7os and despite their then ruinous state looked round (from the outside) a few of the Hawksmoor churches. I’ve visited the restored churches since then. I’m no expert but at least a couple of his churches are works of genius.

    • JabbaPapa

      Is Nicholas Hawksmoor really that little known


      • Jambo25

        Totally agree.

  • IanAbley

    Hawksmoor is known well enough as an architect comparable to others considered English Baroque, but all could be better appreciated. The poetry of his work can be seen and contrasted to that of his peers. But he also suffers from the contemporary nonsense talked about hidden powers, of the sort that make for fun “Mockney” remakes of Sherlock Holmes. Provided people know the difference between fact and fiction there is no harm in that fun. Grown up psycho-geographers are off their heads. A generation playing computer games might talk about the “illuminatii” but these are childish games. While the world has real powers represented by Blair, Brown, Bush II, Cameron, Clinton, Corbyn, Obama, Trump… or Bush III.

  • Tim Bennett

    Some howlers in this piece. George II statue? Sir John Soane’s rhyming couplets? I should think George I and Horace Walpole.