COLLECTING STEEPLES: NICOLAS HAWKSMOOR'S LONDON CHURCHES


Among my many peculiar enthusiasms for the six London churches of English Baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736). Why is difficult to pin down, a combination of their diversity, eccentricity, excellence in execution, and the strange mythos they have accumulated around themselves like iron filings around magnets. Hawksmoor wasn’t quite as socially well-connected as his close colleagues Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh, but he did share in their genius. He had Wren’s sense for the articulation of volumes, and something of Vanbrugh’s theatrical flamboyance, but the eccentric synthesis he arrived at was all his own. For me they represent a kind of exotic “other”, a historical architectural stratum I could never find in New Zealand; shades of Lord Macaulay’s “when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul's”.
Part of the fascination is that we know so little about him. We know he was born in Nottinghamshire, East Drayton or Ragnall of yeoman stock. For a while he was a legal clerk, and then went to London where Wren recognised his talents and took him on, first as a clerk and later as an assistant. He worked with Wren on Chelsea Hospital, St Paul's, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital, and with Vanbrugh on Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard that stood in so splendidly for Waugh’s Brideshead in the 1981 television series. His college buildings at Oxford and Cambridge, and his churches, however, are entirely his own inventions. They are a fascinating counter-classicism that take the recognisable vocabulary of classical architecture, but rearrange it ways that distinctly alien to the classical canon.
The rest is largely a mystery and has tended to attract speculation and the outright fabulous within the mythology of London. Poet, novelist and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, Novelist and biographer of the city, Peter Ackroyd, and graphic novel auteur Alan Moore all have portrayed Hawksmoor as some sort of ritual magician carving out a gigantic pentagram across the city with his churches. Colourful nonsense, but the facts are rather more mundane. In 1666 the Great Fire gorged itself on the wooden muddle of London. The population of the metropolis continued to grow. In 1711 parliament passed an Act requiring the building of fifty new churches for London and Westminster. A commission was established, which included Wren, Vanbrugh, and various clergy, who in turn appointed Hawksmoor as one of two supervising architects.
That’s not to say these authors are without their uses. Sinclair writes of the churches, “Certain features are in common: extravagant design, massive, almost slave-built, strength – not democratic. A strength that is not connected to notions of ‘craftsmanship’ or ‘elegance’. They are not easy on the eye, and do not enforce images of grace. Metaphors inflate at their own risk. The mind is not led upwards to any starry nest.” This is true. The churches are not elegant in the way Wren’s are, nor do they offer much in the way of anticipation of salvation. They are very much terrestrial monuments of the material world. Hawksmoor doesn’t strike me as having had much faith in angels.
In the end only a dozen churches were completed. Of these, six were designed by Hawksmoor alone, and two in collaboration with the architect John James. Of the latter, St Luke Old Street and St John Horsleydown, the only obviously Hawksmooresque features were the extraordinary spires – the former a fluted Egyptian obelisk, and the latter a tapering column topped with a weathervane in the shape of a comet. The latter was destroyed in the Blitz, but the former still stands impressively.
A visit to London in 2008 gave me ample opportunity to indulge my interests in Hawksmoor’s six sister churches. I arrived in London by train from Brussels, and upon exiting St Pancras Station, around the corner, my first Hawkesmoor church found me: Christ Church, Spitalfields. Historically Spitalfields offered haven to immigrants and refugees going back to those Huguenots who fled France just before the churches were built. These days London gentrification has tidied the area up with a bit of greenery. Christ Church was a revelation in the flesh, tall and narrow, and given the pokey street location, difficult to photograph. It’s a domineering presence built on ancient plague pits. It was here that “Saucy Jack” performed his nefarious crimes. The monumental portico is an intriguing variation on the Serlian window cribbed from the then newly fashionable Palladio. This is topped by an intimation of a Roman triumphal arch. The soaring point of the spire and the circular, porthole-like windows gives the impression of a rocket ship about to launch.
Hawkesmoor’s spires were intended as urban markers to let you know where you are. Making use of London’s efficient public transport and following the curve of the Thames, the two Georges (St George’s, Bloomsbury and St George in the East) are about half an hour apart. St George’s, Bloomsbury was familiar from Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane (1751), brooding disapprovingly over the debauchery of what was one of London’s worst slums, the Rookery. The portico is based on that of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in Lebanon. The tower is striking; a steep-sided pyramid based on Pliny the Elder’s description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) surrounded by writhing lions and unicorns (a reference to the recent conclusion of the First Jacobite uprising) and topped by a rather ridiculous-looking (if you squint) statue of King George I in fanciful Roman pomp. Only a few blocks from the British Museum, it was quite convenient to get to and wander around, gazing up vertiginously at the off-centre spire like a barbarian in Rome.
The fortress-like St George in the East in Wapping is an altogether more sedate affair, but just as strange with its twin pepper pot towers and the lantern-shaped main tower – a classicised version of the tower of the Romanesque Ely Cathedral, each pilaster capped with a version of a round Roman altar. This is the last of Hawksmoor’s churches, and quite probably his most elegant. From last to first. St Alfege’s in Greenwich has, as one would expect, an eye-catching Hawksmoor tower, but the lantern drum lacks his later extravagance, as if the architect hadn’t quite gotten away from Master Wren’s shadow.
St Mary Woolnoth, a Starbucks up her arse, the only Hawksmoor church in the old City of London, seems completely out of left field, built on the ruins of Anglo-Saxon and Roman places of worship going back two millennia. At first it seems to vanish into London greyness. Given the peculiar corner site, to modern eyes there seems to be something almost proto-brutalist about the small, blocky, fortress-like church’s imposing rusticated façade proudly thrust out sans portico, the pared back decoration, the functionality of the openings piercing the façade, and the two squat, square turrets on top like speakers on a stereo. It lacks the grandeur and more obvious attractions of the other churches, “with a dead sound on the final stroke of nine” (T. S. Eliot). It’s possibly my favourite simply because it’s the most un-typical of all of them, of any European baroque (maybe a Lequeu, Ledoux, or Boullée) and quite intimidating. It was slated for demolition even in the 1950s.
St Anne’s Limehouse is far from the others, an orphan and the only surviving Hawkesmoor church across the river. It’s the most awkward to get to, not easily be incorporated into the usual circuits of puttering tourism. Special effort must be made, but well worth it. It’s so close to the Thames and the docks, it has always had nautical connections, particularly with the Royal Navy. The clock on the tower is the highest of any in London, visible to the docks. The elaborate tower, with its angular octagonal lantern (with just a hint of Borromini’s undulations, though shorn of curves and made rectilinear) capped with miniature pyramids, is topped by a time ball. I wonder if the architect had in mind Varro’s description of the monumental Etruscan mausoleum of Lars Porsena with its pyramids and bronze ball?

Hawksmoor’s genius lay in recombining the trappings of antiquity. The bodies of the buildings take their lessons from interpenetrating internal volumes of the Italian Baroque and Masonic interpretations of the Temple of Solomon. The lineaments of the spires are fundamentally those of Early English ecclesiastical Gothic executed in classical details borrowed from the Roman, Greek and Egyptian, and the symbolic forms of Freemasonry. When questioned about the overtly pagan references, Hawksmoor claimed they were a reference to the simpler, purer Christianity of the fourth century. Bollocks. Personally I think he merely wished to signal to the greatest city in the world that he was the equal of the architects of Rome, something out of the ordinary, an Ozymandius statement “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair”. His churches in the flesh certainly confirmed that for me.

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