Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Out of the ordinary

  • Comment

Nicholas Hawksmoor: Rebuilding Ancient Wonders By Vaughan Hart. Yale University Press, 2002. 298pp. £35

The manifest oddity of Hawksmoor's architecture, its failure to sit neatly within the artificial embrace of either mid-17thcentury Classicism or the Baroque, leaves his work open to many interpretations, and the sources of his design always ready for further investigation.

So far as anyone has yet discovered, he never slipped overseas: there is no Indian voyage, as Robert Williams recently discovered for Vanbrugh, nor even a youthful excursion to Europe, such as the likelihood of Wren's journey down the Rhine, newly proposed by Lisa Jardine. The sources for the strange diversity and complexity of Hawksmoor's motifs and the vitality of his modelling have to be found on paper, indoors and at home.

Vaughan Hart pursues a telling angle, looking closely at Hawksmoor's own diverse library and his collection of prints and drawings, which point revealingly to the breadth of his intellectual interests. These sources guided him on an idiosyncratic architectural journey, until late in his career he ran smack into the brick wall that was resurgent Palladianism. As Vanbrugh said in 1721: 'Poor Hawksmoor, What a Barbarous Age, have his fine, ingenious Parts fallen into.'

Both men watched the Burlington circle putting architecture back to rights according to the strict letter of the laws of Classicism and thus, wrote Hawksmoor acidly, 'we may expect speedily to be converted to Truth, and have also our Taste rectified and made sensible.'

The working relationship between Hawksmoor and Wren lies at the centre of this book, but immediately it comes under scrutiny the balance begins to shift. Even as the volume went to press, Gordon Higgott had discovered that crucial 'Wren' drawings for the dome of St Paul's Cathedral were clearly in Hawksmoor's hand.

According to his obituary, Hawksmoor arrived in Wren's office at around the age of 18 and it is, as Hart suggests, therefore very likely that Wren's Tracts were written with his young clerk in mind, and possibly discussed and drafted with his help. The architecture that emerged, Hart argues, should be viewed in the light of the new discourse - that of the natural sciences and experimental philosophy, discussed over many a session at the Royal Society (of which Hawksmoor was never a Fellow despite, or perhaps because of, the prominence of Wren and Robert Hooke).

Geometry and optics, offering the possibility of experiment, were at the heart of the architecture of the 'Moderns', the root stock for the extraordinary compilations of often disparate forms which reached their apogee in the steeples and towers for Hawksmoor's commissioners' churches, with their dependence on pagan monuments.

Hawksmoor, born about 1661, was shocked by the failure of his elders to grasp the opportunities that had been offered them for the reconstruction of London after the Great Fire. Instead of creating a 'Convenient regular well built Citty' for the early 1700s, they had left it little more than 'a Chaos of Dirty Rotten Sheds'. The golden moment to build a fit capital for a new age had been lost, but Hawksmoor realised that the ancient universities offered a better chance, with ownership of land in the hands of the colleges rather than the multiplicity of private and unidentifiable interests which had obstructed the post-fire plans of Wren and others.

'Let us returne to Oxford and Looke forward upon ye hopes we may have in ye Universitys of doing as much good as we can and Avoiding ye Ills that May happen by omiting a little previous Care.' As Hawksmoor envisaged it, the heart of the town would have been an elegant celebration of Baroque urbanism designed by one who, though not a graduate of any college, was still 'bred a Scholar'.

Hart's stimulating investigation is richly illustrated and includes many of Hawksmoor's handsome drawings.

Unfortunately, for such a lavish book, some of the contemporary photographs are very substandard and the captions are decidedly terse.

Although the thematic organisation of his material inevitably leads to some repetition, Hart convincingly demonstrates that Hawksmoor, always described by his peers as both modest and honest, was an architect who combined his particular and extraordinary abilities with a highly complex vision.

Gillian Darley writes on architecture and landscape

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.