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The Hawksmoor Epiphany

The Royal Academy’s Hawksmoor exhibition serves as a welcome taster that may inspire people to go and discover his work first hand, writes Gillian Darley

I once had the distinctly nerve-wracking experience of interviewing the elderly and eminent John Summerson. I’d been asked to talk to him about contemporary architecture, in which he was involved in the 1920s and ‘30s, as a critic, member of CIAM and, before that, a student of architecture himself. It was a standoff – until I hazarded a question about what modern architectural students might gain from knowledge of its history. At that point he immediately unfroze, and began to expand, eloquently, on what familiarity with the work of the greatest architects – he chose Michelangelo and Hawksmoor – could provide. Students, he told me, simply needed to be guided towards the work, so that they could ‘feel a Hawksmoor church… to embrace it in the mind.’ Their experience had to amount to more than a dry and dismissive ‘Hawksmoor, 1712.’ If the introduction worked, although ‘there is no conceivable way of calculating the relationship of that to any thing they will do on their drawing boards,’ they would have been touched by something profound. Then, as if he felt free now to touch on modern architecture, he finally began to discuss it, talking of Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre and Ralph Erskine’s Clare Hall in particular.

The tribute that the Royal Academy has put on to mark Hawksmoor’s 350th birthday is a tiny taster, no more than an amuse-bouchein that unsuitable sloping corridor outside the restaurant. But Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination will serve a good purpose if visitors are then inspired to go looking for, or return to, Hawksmoor’s work, encouraged perhaps by the videos of writer Philip Pullman, poet Iain Sinclair and architect Ptolemy Dean, each sharing his passion for Hawksmoor’s work, respectively that in Oxford and London. His obituary said he was ‘bred a scholar’ and a linguist. Yet he is believed to have never left Britain. His working partnership with John Vanbrugh, notably at Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, was an extraordinary architectural marriage that still poses questions three centuries later.

Early 18th century London was ringed by a necklace of Hawksmoor churches, now an inner circle, and they stand witness to almost every aspect of his ability, be it his brilliance at establishing a volumetric plan that rises above the deficiencies of the site, or his flair at garnering forms from an entire thesaurus of styles and motifs. Above all, they are testament to his skill at evoking and intensifying mood through the manipulation of height, form and detail. A paragraph from Lasdun’s lecture notes on Hawksmoor is quoted on the exhibition wall, how he ‘metabolised’ the different elements. It’s the mot juste.

The London churches are strong stuff. The 18th century art historian Horace Walpole considered the spire of St George’s Bloomsbury to be a ‘masterstroke of absurdity’; a fair judgement, if absurdity can be considered wilful playfulness. At the opposite extreme stands that confrontational and strange little City church, St Mary Woolnoth. H S Goodhart-Rendel, the author of the first monograph on the architect published in 1924, considered it to be resonant with tragedy, yet not grim. Ian Nairn, in Nairn’s London caught the strangeness of it, for ‘you don’t realise until afterwards just how odd the building is… it transcends originality.’ The extraordinary compact plan, fitted on to an impossible site, resulted in a ‘piece of architectural eloquence unsurpassed in England.’ No surprise, perhaps, that the latter judgement was in Summerson’s Georgian London.

Hawksmoor’s admirers in the profession were generally the awkward squad, those who argued their way through, and even against, the norms of architecture. John Soane revelled in Hawksmoor’s work and used the distant, otherworldly mausoleum that floats in the landscape at Castle Howard in his Royal Academy lectures. A pre-war photograph of the interior of St George in the East, before bombing, shows that the interior vaulted in shallow handkerchief-like forms – the kind that George Dance the Younger and then Soane refined ever more tenuously. After the war, it was left standing proud in open ground, the better to reveal (Summerson again) ‘tiny doors wrought about with architectural pomps so heavy and superabundant as to suggest the extravagance of dream-architecture’. Go and look for yourself, if that seems hyperbolic.

In the slanting late March sunlight of recent days in London, the Hawksmoor churches have looked their very best, hewn in light and dense shade, providing a spectacular outdoor exhibition, even for those of us lucky enough to pass them regularly. To be confronted by the heroic west front of Christ Church rearing up across Spitalfields or to glimpse, as the bus passes, the quirky, landlocked St George’s Bloomsbury so oddly juxtaposed with the British Museum, is to share, every time, something of what Summerson wanted his students to take away with them from an introduction to Hawksmoor.


Gillian Darley’s essay ‘Looking for Ian Nairn’ is in the forthcoming AA Files 64
Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination, Royal Academy, London W1, until 17 June, free

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