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Why has it taken so long for Nicholas Hawksmoor's work to be recognised?

St Mary Woolnoth’s lunette clerestory windows, invisible from the outside.
St Mary Woolnoth’s lunette clerestory windows, invisible from the outside. · Credit: Owen Hopkins

From the Shadows – The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, is a book about architectural reputation amid changing tastes and fashions. Or as author Owen Hopkins puts it, how Hawksmoor’s buildings have, over time, been ‘ignored, abused, altered, recovered and then celebrated’.

These days it’s surprising to learn that soon after his death in 1736, Nicholas Hawksmoor was largely forgotten and his architecture overlooked. Author Owen Hopkins shows how this great church architect’s achievements were not fully recognised until the decades after the Second World War, when architectural historians finally paid serious attention to his work for the first time and architects such as Denys Lasdun, the Smithsons, and James Stirling found inspiration for their own work in his designs.

The book’s exploration of the ‘afterlife’ of the architect, and how this was influenced by changing attitudes in society, is a strong and fruitful angle.

‘How we view Hawksmoor’s buildings is shaped by what we bring with us, but also by their innate ability to intrigue and inspire, perplex and provoke, appear timeless yet very much of their moment,’ says Hopkins.

  • The east front of St Alfege, Greenwich, with Roman funereal altars.
    The east front of St Alfege, Greenwich, with Roman funereal altars. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • Greenwich Hospital, on a winter’s morning, seen from across the Thames.
    Greenwich Hospital, on a winter’s morning, seen from across the Thames. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • The west front and spire of St George, Bloomsbury.
    The west front and spire of St George, Bloomsbury. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • The west tower of St George-in-the-East, seen from the west.
    The west tower of St George-in-the-East, seen from the west. · Credit: Owen Hopkins

So why was Hawksmoor forgotten in the first place? We learn that there are many reasons. Hawksmoor had a humble, unassuming nature and avoided the limelight. He suffered, says Hopkins, from lacking a prominent monument – unlike Christopher Wren, to whom he assisted as apprentice, and Sir John Vanbrugh, with whom he later collaborated on Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. His lowly origins also possibly contributed to him being regarded primarily as a pupil or assistant to these more famous contemporaries rather than a worthy architect in his own right.  A bigger factor was what Hopkins calls a fundamental change in architectural taste towards Palladianism that began while Hawksmoor was still alive. Very quickly, he became ‘yesterday’s man’.

Hopkins takes us through Hawksmoor’s formative time with Wren and his collaborations with Vanbrugh to his own work, including his six key London churches. We hear about his use of styles outside the Classical canon to produce a ‘hybrid’ architecture with allusions to Gothic and early Christian architecture.

‘For Hawksmoor, there were no absolutes, no antique source, not any author from which one might derive fixed guidelines for the ‘correct’ appearance of a building,’ says Hopkins.

  • Hawksmoor’s twin Gothic towers at All Souls College, Oxford.
    Hawksmoor’s twin Gothic towers at All Souls College, Oxford. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • The Mausoleum at Castle Howard.
    The Mausoleum at Castle Howard. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • Sidney R.J.Smith’s 1899-1900 entrance to Bank Station adjoining St Mary Woolnoth to the south.
    Sidney R.J.Smith’s 1899-1900 entrance to Bank Station adjoining St Mary Woolnoth to the south. · Credit: Owen Hopkins
  • Christ Church, Spitalfieds, at the end of Brushfield Street.
    Christ Church, Spitalfieds, at the end of Brushfield Street. · Credit: Owen Hopkins

The book discusses the many ways that Hawksmoor has been viewed, including: 'as Wren’s less-talented assistant, an idiosyncratic genius, proto-postmodernist or the mysterious occultist’.  

Long before he attracted the attention of modernist architects in the 1950s, Hawksmoor’s St Mary Woolnoth was successfully saved from demolition in 1896 in a high profile campaign that saw the church’s merits discussed in both the House of Lords and House of Commons, and survived another demolition proposal 20 years later. In 1924 Harry Stuart Goodhart-Rendel, then president of the Architectural Association, published a book on Hawksmoor, with whom he had a career-long interest. Hawksmoor’s rehabilitation gathered steam in the 1950s and 60s as he attracted the interest of architectural historians, and was the subject of a book and exhibition, with campaigns to raise money for repairs to Christ Church Spitalfields, and St Anne Limehouse. Hopkins goes on to describe how modernists such as Lasdun, and, in the 1980s, the post-modernists, discovered Hawksmoor, as well as writer Peter Ackroyd and poet Iain Sinclair. We come right up to date with Dow Jones’ renovation of the Christ Church crypt.

Despite Hopkins’ detailed explanation of changing tastes and perceptions, it still seems amazing that Hawksmoor had to wait so long for afterlife recognition. This book can’t help but make one wonder how history will judge the top architects of today, and whose reputations will thrive while others’ suffer.  

From the Shadows The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, by Owen Hopkins, Reaktion Books, HB, 304pp, £25.