Archive for August, 2013

HawksmoorCollage

Nicholas Hawksmoor is one of those strange figures of British history who have remained buried at the bottom of history, not much recognition, not famous, nobody seems to care much. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Newton, Blake, Shakespeare, or Dickens. He should be one of those we mention without needing to use his first name or his profession. So why is he little known outside the fields of Baroque architecture and London history? English Baroque never became as fashionable as its continental counterparts, I believe this is a principle reason why Hawksmoor never quite made it among those lofty names. He has also been overshadowed in notoriety and in the legacy of his work by his master – Sir Christopher Wren.

Hawksmoor

Hawksmoor was ‘spotted’ by Sir Christopher Wren. He subsequently worked for Wren as a clerk in the last 20 years of the 18th century. This is both a blessing and a curse for Hawksmoor because much of his work has been overshadowed by the figure of Wren. Wren’s shadow is cast from the huge cupola of St Paul’s over the last 300 years of British Architecture. This period was also characterised by the rebuilding of London after the great fire. I said blessed because Wren is undoubtedly a genius of this period. The job of an architect was not really conceived before Wren. The idea of planning construction sites and project managing was not really a professional concern, it was left to the skilled labourers and masons. Working with Wren during this time must have given Hawksmoor many opportunities which allowed him to develop and exploit his skills. Hawksmoor worked with Wren on the Chelsea Hospital, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital. Wren was also surveyor general. It’s easy to see how Hawksmoor’s influence can be overshadowed by the celebrity of Wren, but many argue that some of the features and developments of Wren’s projects owe much to Hawksmoor. Imagine the modern celebrity chefs who lend their names to famous restaurants only to have another more than competent chef actually cook the meals. I think there is a distinct possibility that their close professional relationship created a level of trust whereby Hawksmoor could carry out the projects of Wren’s ‘brand’ without much interference. Wren also had many other concerns at that time so I think it’s safe to assume that not every Wren project was completed in its entirety by Wren

Hawksmoor (2)

By 1700, Hawksmoor was a major architectural force with his own style; his own baroque style.  I say his own Baroque style consciously, because unlike many architects of that time Hawksmoor never completed the almost obligatory Grand Tour. He did not see the famous sights first-hand, and had to rely on pictures and engravings. The lack of first-hand experiences may have hindered his style, but I choose to believe that it prevented cheap mimicry and afforded him a rare objective approach when studying ancient monuments and edifices. Anyone who has seen his churches can see that he paid close attention to the monuments of ancient Rome and even Greek, Egyptian, and Hebrew works. How many churches in England have a pyramid in their graveyards? His grand tour was carried out in the library where he travelled effortlessly from Medieval Europe to Ancient Egypt. He was free from the constraints and prejudice of direct contact and instead had to rely more on the free-flowing artistic imagination to complete his works.

Hawksmoor (3)

This continuity of history, be it Christian, pagan or anything else, is explored in the baffling yet brilliant book ‘Hawksmoor’ by Peter Ackroyd. I read the book after visiting his churches in London. The narrative switches between the slightly mundane modern murder investigations to the initial drawing board of the architect/mason. Many themes are explored which you can see clearly in the fabric of the unusual churches. The main theme being the relentless rationality of Wren compared to NIcholas Dyer’s satanic mysticism.  I won’t go into too many details about the book here because I want to talk about my journey through the architecture. However, the book provides an unbelievable analysis of religious architecture in relation to the history of belief itself. The book really helped to explain the continuity of history in the church both physical and religious. Some of the prose adds another layer of meaning to most of the structures built by Hawksmoor. The book has also left a cult of the occult. The belief is that the pattern of the churches relates to some diabolical pentagram. I cannot confirm this but what I will say is that there is an otherworldly quality of the churches. Each building seems to exist on a separate timeline than our Judeo-Christian heritage. In many ways the churches seem a little dislocated from their physical surroundings too. Too grand to sit between  the simple dwellings of East London, and far too mysterious too be nestled between the large Victorian Banks and Institutions of Central London. To the untrained eye they may look the same in colour and texture as their neighbouring buildings, but on closer inspection they bear little resemblance to the safe classical buildings we commonly see. I wondered why Hawksmoor had so many churches to his name so long after the great fire. I found my answer when I visited  Christchurch in Spitalfields.

In 1711, parliament passed the following:

Act for the building of Fifty New Churches in the Cities of London and Westminster or the Suburbs thereof.

The act was passed for various political reasons, but it was supported by Queen Ann as a way of providing a pastoral guidance for the godless masses, especially in the East. London at this time was turning into a huge metropolis and the infrastructure had not caught up with the demands of the growing population. There was also a concern about the growing number of non conformist meeting houses, especially in the Spitalfields area which contained large numbers of Huguenots . The creation of large churches was a way to erect towering steeples to watch over the less imposing meeting houses. Whatever the reasoning, it was a serious commission, a commission which included Christopher Wren, John Vanburgh, Thomas Archer and a number of churchmen. Hawksmoor served as one of its surveyors and remained  until the commission ran out of enthusiasm and money in 1733. The declining will for the 50 churches meant that only twelve churches were actually completed. I believe they ran out of money because they were far more grandiose than originally intended. Some of the churches were collaborations but six of the churches were designed or rebuilt by Hawksmoor:

Christ Church, Spitalfields Hawksmoor 1714-29

St Alfege Church, Greenwich Hawksmoor 1712-18 (rebuilt)

St Anne’s Limehouse Hawksmoor 1714-30

St George’s, Bloomsbury Hawksmoor 1716-31

St George in the East Hawksmoor 1714-29

St Mary Woolnoth Hawksmoor 1716-24 (rebuilt)

Hawksmoor (4)

I spent the best part of a day travelling across London to look at the churches. Unfortunately St. Georges in the East was closed and as I was in the East I failed to visit Bloomsbury, this is strange because I have been in that area many times. If you live in London, or if you are spending a reasonable amount of time there I highly recommend setting aside a full day to visit the churches. I started in Spitalfields and headed East. Actually, I forgot my map and notes but a leaflet from Christchurch was enough to get me going to Limehouse and beyond. I will not label all the pictures or describe how to get there, I believe it should be a personal journey. If you need a guide then consider following the gruesome murders in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor. Good luck!

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