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Nicholas Hawksmoor (c1661-1736)

In the absence of biographical information, the story of Hawksmoor became a vacuum - one filled with seductive mythology

Hawksmoor Oscar Zarate 2

Hawksmoor Oscar Zarate 2

Source: Oscar Zarate

In 1985 a strange and deeply haunting novel appeared, one with which the early-18th-century British architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor, is now inextricably associated. On one level the connection was assured as soon as the book’s author Peter Ackroyd used Hawksmoor’s name for the title. But it was also due to the power of the book itself, which weaves together time and place across two separate narratives: one set in the early 18th century that follows the mysterious occultist-architect Nicholas Dyer – a recasting of the real Hawksmoor – as he raises a string of churches across London; the other takes place in present-day London as a Metropolitan police detective – the eponymous Hawksmoor – investigates a series of murders around Dyer’s churches. Ackroyd’s carefully constructed early modern English prose belies the extent to which Dyer was a fictional reworking of the real Hawksmoor, whose six London churches, along with the fictional addition of Little St Hugh, are co-opted into a dark web of murder and devil worship. The churches emerge almost as active agents in the story, shaping the events that swirl around them until the two narratives eventually fuse and time and space collapse into their stark, geometrical abysses.

The book struck a chord on its release and garnered considerable attention, not least from architectural historians. Gavin Stamp remembers receiving a letter shortly after Hawksmoor’s publication from his friend, John Summerson, clearly riled by the book’s ‘defiling [of] the wells of truth’ which, he argued, ‘will permanently disfigure the historical image’. ‘It’s up for the Booker’, Summerson added, ‘if it wins I shall be sick.’ For his part, Stamp wrote an article for The Spectator offering a factual rebuttal to Ackroyd’s insinuations upon Hawksmoor’s character. He concluded: ‘obscurity would now be a mercy compared with the sensational and mendacious notoriety this harmless, unassuming architect now enjoys’.

‘Architects were also beginning to notice Hawksmoor, often re-conceiving his work in relation to their own ideas and practice’

Hawksmoor did not win the Booker Prize, but did take the Whitbread and Guardian awards and today stands as an important example of the Postmodern novel. But looking back, the critical and popular success it achieved cannot be detached from the way the mythology it created so perfectly fitted the mood of the time. Interest in Hawksmoor and the areas of east London where his churches stood sentinel had been growing. The first scholarly studies of Hawksmoor in the 1950s had helped to direct passionate campaigns to raise awareness of the plight of several of his buildings and secure funds for their urgent repair, notably by the Hawksmoor Committee at Christ Church, Spitalfields and St Anne, Limehouse. Architects were also beginning to notice Hawksmoor, often re-conceiving his work in relation to their own ideas and practice. For Denys Lasdun, Hawksmoor was a sculptor-architect, obsessed by the materiality of stone; for Robert Venturi, he was a pioneer purveyor of architecture that revelled in complexity and contradiction; while for James Stirling, Hawksmoor was a powerful forerunner for his own vigorous compositions of ideas, references and geometries. The astonishing variety of interpretations of Hawksmoor and his work during the 1970s and 1980s – whether by writers, architects, or artists who were drawing increasing attention to the East End – was due in many ways to the simple fact that for the first 200 years after his death Hawksmoor had been all but forgotten.

Unlike his master Christopher Wren, very little is known about Hawksmoor, and almost nothing – not even his date of birth – until around the age of 18 when he entered Wren’s office. While Hawksmoor’s character largely remains a mystery, we do, however, have a tranche of drawings by him, which demonstrate an architectural imagination of stunning power and range, despite – or maybe because of – the fact he never left Britain. Over the 1680s and 1690s, Hawksmoor worked his way up from a lowly clerk to become Wren’s right-hand man, deeply involved in the final and critical stages of St Paul’s Cathedral: the dome and west-end towers. The virtuoso series of drawings Hawksmoor produced appear, even now, startling in their originality, deliberately conflating perspective and elevation to render an allusive image of how building might appear in actuality; the architectural form emerges literally from the shadows created by the pale ink wash.

‘It is sometimes thought, even today, that Hawksmoor was merely the provider of mundane professional assistance to the untrained, maverick, Vanbrugh’

It is quite something to see just how far Wren was willing to delegate the design conception and development to Hawksmoor, even if he reined in his apprentice and put his own imprint on the final, built designs. Hawksmoor probably did not complain; collaborative working seemed to come naturally to him, first with Wren and then with John Vanbrugh. It is sometimes thought, even today, that Hawksmoor was merely the provider of mundane professional assistance to the untrained, maverick, Vanbrugh. But their relationship was much more than that. It was a true meeting of minds. The buildings they designed together – Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, two of the greatest architectural achievements of the age – are unlike what either designed on their own, surely the most important mark of a true creative collaboration.

Though overshadowed by Wren and Vanbrugh in both life and death, the buildings Hawksmoor designed independently are easily on a par with, and, for some observers exceed, the achievements of his more famous colleagues. The best known today are the six churches he built across London in the first decades of the 18th century. Colossal in scale, of brilliant white stone, stark and austere in design yet resonant with allusions to architecture distant in time and place, these churches still dominate their areas, even as the city has grown up around them. They appear timeless and eternal, yet are continually spilling new secrets.

The final years of Hawksmoor’s life were ones of frustration and disappointment. He was the last survivor of the English Baroque – that extraordinary flowering of architectural invention that took place around the turn of the century. By the mid-1720s architectural taste had changed fundamentally, so that upon their completion his churches were met with immediate censure by Palladian critics. At Castle Howard where he continued working, Hawksmoor even faced the ignominy of having his designs for the Mausoleum – his last and perhaps greatest work – shown for approval to Lord Burlington, Palladianism’s high priest, by the aspiring amateur-architect, Thomas Robinson. Although the patronising and self-regarding way Robinson outlined the apparent deficiencies of his designs would have irked him greatly, Hawksmoor remained dignified and modest to the end. As Robinson himself recounted: ‘I must say one thing in fav’r of Mr Hawksmoor I never talk’d with a more reasonable man, nor with one so little prejudiced in favour of his own performances …’

The risk when dealing with such a retiring and in many ways still little-known historical figure is that, as Stamp and Summerson warned, the mythology obscures the real man and the power of his actual achievements. Yet to my mind, Hawksmoor has had the last laugh. The comparative absence of biographical information created a space, a vacuum even, that Ackroyd was able to fill with a seductive mythology. But, I would argue, this would never have been possible without a group of buildings of such idiosyncratic, enigmatic and unforgettable power to base it around – buildings which the mythology has in fact helped to return to prominence. As Ackroyd remarked looking back, ‘I don’t think there is any architect who has the potential Nicholas Hawksmoor had in terms of [there] being so little known about him, his churches are so striking and in some cases weird that he was the perfect subject … I’m sure Mr Hawksmoor will have forgiven me by now.’ He probably has.


Illustration by Oscar Zarate