The architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor mesmerises authors, poets, comic book artists and painters, who are inspired by its occult power. Owen Hopkins investigates
Anyone who has passed through Spitalfields in recent months might have spotted a tall, wiry-haired figure sitting hunched on an old camping chair, his gaze alternating between the drawing board on his knee and the great mass of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christ Church, Spitalfields.
The vigour with which the artist, Anthony Eyton, depicts the architectural drama unfolding in front of him belies his 91 years. His series of scenes evocatively captures a moment of everyday life, while also conveying the sheer weight and latent energy of Hawksmoor’s masterpiece.
Christ Church has not been the only focus of Eyton’s attention these past months. He has also been working on paintings and pastel drawings of Hawksmoor’s five other churches, as well as his west towers at Westminster Abbey, all for an exhibition that opens next week at the Eleven Spitalfields Gallery. The project was suggested by architect Chris Dyson, who runs the gallery in the ground floor of his Princelet Street house. Eyton kept a studio nearby between 1968 and 1982, during which time Christ Church became a familiar sight in his work, looming over the Spitalfields rooftops – but this is the first time he has tackled Hawksmoor head-on.
Eyton is far from the only artist to be drawn to Hawksmoor’s architecture, just as Dyson is one of a long line of architects to be intrigued by his enigmatic creations. Hawksmoor’s buildings have the ability not only to capture, but also to spark the imagination, casting a spell over successions of artists, architects, and writers. Their raw, haunting power is also part of the reason why Hawksmoor’s buildings have been co-opted into occultist mythology and why today he is even known by some as the ‘devil’s architect’.
With his grandiose Baroque out of fashion even before his death in 1736, Hawksmoor’s reputation reached its nadir in the first decades of the 19th century. It is surprising, therefore, to discover Hawksmoor’s church of St George, Bloomsbury, included by both Soane and Turner among the illustrations for their respective Royal Academy lectures around this time. What drew these two artistic titans to a church where, writing a century and a half later, even Ian Nairn felt ‘for once … Hawksmoor’s prodigious imagination ran away from him’? The answer was the church’s wonderfully strange stepped pyramidal spire, topped by a statue of George I in imperial garb, which had been satirised by Hogarth in Gin Lane half a century before. For Soane, the spire was an unusual example of the role of sculpture in classical architecture, while for Turner it allowed an exploration into the way perspective could be used to induce the sense of vertigo one feels looking up at a soaring spire – an effect especially acute in Hawksmoor’s churches. Despite their interest in St George’s, both Soane and Turner still considered Hawksmoor at best a marginal figure, a fact confirmed by Soane’s reference to him only as the ‘pupil’ of the more famous Wren and Vanbrugh.
It is not until 1924 that we find an architect claiming Hawksmoor as ‘one of the greatest masters of modern architecture’. That architect was HS Goodhart-Rendel, writing in the first monograph on Hawksmoor for Ernest Benn’s Masters of Architecture series. Hawksmoor was Goodhart-Rendel’s architectural hero – a maverick figure, charting his own, idiosyncratic course, which Goodhart- Rendel clearly hoped to emulate. The frontispiece was an eerie black and white photograph of St Mary Woolnoth. The choice was clearly carefully made. Two years earlier it was mentioned by TS Eliot in The Waste Land in the passage where the poet describes a stream of wraith-like figures proceeding across London Bridge, up King William Street ‘To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours / With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.
Eliot’s inclusion of Hawksmoor’s church in the mystical world of The Waste Land inaugurated the association with the occult. With Iain Sinclair’s theories about the siting of Hawksmoor’s churches on ancient ley-lines, Peter Ackroyd’s fantastical novel Hawksmoor, in which the architect is recast as his devil-worshipping alter ego Nicholas Dyer, not to mention Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s graphic novel, From Hell, Hawksmoor and his buildings are now enveloped by a seductive mythology.
In retrospect it is no coincidence that these speculative theories began to take root during the 1970s and 1980s at a time when London’s East End was beginning to be colonised by outsiders. From the New Georgians of Spitalfields to artists taking advantage of cheap studio space, those who migrated to the East End became intrigued by its murky and mysterious histories, in which Hawksmoor’s churches appeared to play an active role. Amid the still Blitz-ravaged cityscape, the churches stood out as shining white beacons against the dereliction.
It was this singular quality that so intrigued architects who discovered Hawksmoor at this time. Architects as varied as Denys Lasdun, Robert Venturi and James Stirling saw Hawksmoor’s buildings through their own particular lenses, creating a version that suited their respective ideas and practice.
Hawksmoor became a sculptor-architect, a proto-Postmodernist, and the creator of eclectic ‘vigorous architecture’. Comparatively unknown in wider circles, he was quickly becoming the architects’ architect.
Visiting Eyton’s studio a few months ago, he showed me a drawing he’d discovered in his archive depicting one of the trios of Corinthian columns at St Mary Woolnoth. He had no memory of why or even when he had made the drawing, but was struck by the way, whether consciously or not, he has been continuously drawn to Hawksmoor over his career.
It’s this kind of magnetic pull Hawksmoor conjures that I see as lying at the heart of his buildings’ ability to provoke, inspire and captivate. Having emerged from the shadows of time, Hawksmoor stands today as one of the greats of architectural history. Despite being more familiar than ever, it is testament to the extraordinary power of his architecture that its hold over our imaginations shows little sign of abating.
Owen Hopkins is author of From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, which is being published next year.