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The Architecture of Nicholas Hawksmoor

Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661-1736) was an English architect known as a mysterious freemason who has that fondness in pagan symbols. He was involved in the development of most of the great English baroque architecture. He started at the age of 21 as the assistant of Sir Christopher Wren in the design of city churches, royal residences, Chelsea Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. He also worked with Sir John Vanbrough in the building of great residences, Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace in Woodstok, Oxfordshire, England. He also took part in the construction of Greenwich Hospital as deputy surveyor.

It took 250 years for his works to be recognized. By virtue of the Act of 1711, he was appointed to join a group of architects to design 50 churches in London. In 1714, he started the plan on six highly original churches: St Alphege, Greenwich; St Anne, Limehouse; St George-in-the-East; Christ Church, Spitalfields; St George, Bloomsbury; and St Mary Woolnoth. In addition to this, he designed the north quadrangle of All Souls’ College at Oxford. Hawksmoor’s individuality of design made him a significant figure in the history of international baroque, having been influenced by different architectural elements of different period.

Distinctively, Hawksmoor’s church designs have always seemed better suited to funerals than weddings which made him an icon for occultists, studious goths and historical conspiracy theorists in the modern times. This gave him the moniker “the devil’s architect”. Hawksmoor’s architecture had been almost completely ignored until it gained considerable interest in the last half of the 19th century. His six major churches have become important venue of occults and psychogeographical thought in London.

Remarkable features of Hawksmoor architecture was introduced to the public by Iain Sinclair in his poem Lud Heat which inspired the murder-thriller novel by Peter Ackroyd entitled “Hawksmoor”. Both writers perceive Hawksmoor’s churches as centres of unpleasant vibe connected to murders. Thus, “Hawksmoor code” is very much evident into the buildings which make them more striking. On the face of it, Hawksmoor’s churches appear to be a picture of mediaeval forms in plain classicism as that of Wren churches and in conformity with the standard pattern.

Yet, the more bizarre they appear once given a deeper look. Morbidity is best described Hawksmoor’s obsession with monuments and monumentality. His design of flattened arches of the interiors and the massive character of the recessed walls contribute to the impression of weight, and gloom. A slight feeling of unease is created in the haziness of spaces. Christ Church Spitalfields Research and imagination has woven a historical parallelism between Hawksmoor’s work and London’s underworld. This is particularly evident in Christ Church Spitalfields.

It is an Anglican church built between 1714 and 1729. Its architectural composition demonstrates Hawksmoor’s usual abruptness. The plain rectangular box of the nave is used up by a broad tower of three stages with a steeple at the top, at its west end. Attached to it at this side are the magnificent porch with its semi circular pediment and Tuscan columns. It is a late addition to the design purposely to support the tower. The central space of the church is organised around two axes, the shorter originally emphasised by two entrances of which only that to the south remains.

Its richly flat decorated ceiling is lit by a clerestory. Elliptical barrel-vaults roofed the aisles carried on a raised Composite order. The screen across the east and west ends uses also the same order. Steve Rose (2006) in his history article described Christ Church Spitalfields as fitting the bill of a temple of dark forces magnificently. Hawksmoor’s freemasonry and fondness for “pagan” symbols, and the lack of solid biographical detail have tagged him as a mystery man. He himself is largely unknowable, and from a few letters that he left, his character is known from the products of his career.

In the late 1950s, many of his key works were in uncertain condition, which includes the Christ Church. There had been an attempt to demolish it until the establishment of Hawksmoor Committee which initiated the restoration of the church. After the completion of its renovation, the church reopened in 2004. St George’s Bloomsbury Church St George’s Bloomsbury is among the fifty new churches designed for the Commission of the 1711 Act and is considered as one of Hawksmoor’s “devilish” creations. It is a parish church sandwiched into an existing street in Bloomsbury, London Borough of Camden, United Kingdom.

Its location is purposely to serve both to the posh folks to the north, and the crime-ridden area of the south known as The Rookery. The site posed considerable problems following Catholic tradition that the altar would be at the eastern end of the church. But in the case of the church, it was longer running north-south than east-west. After deliberation, Hawksmoor’s plan won over other designs presented in the Commission. He persisted with an ingenious plan that allowed for an east-west orientation. The center or the nave of the church resembles a perfect cube.

The Guardian Unlimited (2006) details its design: The grand six-pillared portico to the south, facing the street, was largely ornamental, and the real entrance was beneath the tower to the west, at the “back” of the nave. But the interior is actually asymmetrical, with an extra strip of space beyond the pillars at the northern end of the cube, screened off and used as a private space for the rector. In 1731, church goers began to complain of the church’s lack of space. It was only in 1781 that efforts of reorientation of the entire church to the north have been exerted to make more room.

Major renovations were made including the shifting of the synagogue benches to 90 degrees and placing the huge wooden screen behind the altar to the north wall, and the windows behind it were blanked out, which remained the maintaining state of the church. Before, there was a corridor with walled-up chambers of bodies on either side but it was created as an open space that will house an unspecified long-term tenant and a permanent exhibition on Hawksmoor and Bloomsbury. St. George’s houses the oddest church tower in the land. It is a pyramid topped by King George I in Roman costume, with pairs of lions and unicorns dancing around its base.

These lively beasts were created by sculptor Tim Crawley according to what was remained of the original design, re-carved in baroque knots in the 19th century. The pyramid was a replica of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which is one of the seven wonder of the world. Hawksmoor’s representation of a pagan temple on top of a Christian church, according to Molyneux Kerr (2007) is unknowing and innocent. According to Kerr, Hawksmoor had been fascinated by the mausoleum since he was a young architect during his work with Sir Christopher Wren. Kerr believed that Hawksmoor’s design in St.

George’s was a best example of George I, who was on the throne when the construction of the church started but by the time it was completed, had also the time of his death. He believed that the beasts serve as his protectors. Considered the most handsome Georgian portico in London, the Portico of St. George’s was based on the Temple of Baalbek in the Lebanon. Notable works inspired by this were “The Bloomsbury Christening” by Charles Dickens, St George’s was used as the setting. The Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope was baptized here in 1824.

In 1913, Emily Davison’s funeral took place here (Emily was the suffragette who threw herself in front of the King’s horse. Also, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethopia attended a controversial chant for the dead of the Abyssinian war in 1937. All Souls College Rather than building houses for the wealthy, Hawksmoor made his name not only with church designs but also in university architecture. The final fifteen years of Hawksmoor’s life he spent for the rebuilding of All Souls College (1716-1735) in Oxford, which turned out to be his finest University work.

This was where he developed his own version of a gothic style. (wood) This Hawksmoor original gothic style appeared in the exterior of a new Hall and Library which blended harmoniously with the surviving medieval buildings. Typical of Hawksmoor, he left the interiors in pure classical form. In replacement of the old medieval hall, Hawksmoor retained the east-west axis of the Chapel in the present hall as part of the great refashioning of the northern end of the college. The creation of the Radcliffe Square and its library transformed the architectural centre of Oxford.

Among several plans in various styles from several architects presented to the college, Hawksmoor’s own idiosyncratic version of Gothic was welcomed. The hall on the outside a mirror image of the Chapel was built only in 1730 because of financial constraint. Lack of funds also delayed the completion of the project but to this reason that the north range of the medieval quadrangle owed its existence. It was actually the North Quadrangle that bears Hawksmoor’s major achievement in rebuilding the college. It faced Radcliffe Square, and orientated this part of the college east-west, reversing the north-south axis of the front quad.

The quadrangle as a whole is classically symmetrical. The central accent of the sundial was absent in the eighteenth century, but moved only to its current position in the Victorian age, placed initially between the south-facing pinnacles of the chapel. At the eastern side of Hawksmoor’s quadrangle is the ‘grand dormitory’ of fellows’ rooms. Twin extraordinary towers break the three-storey facade. As Sir Howard Colvin describe it: ‘Gothic used scenically and romantically, but within the conventions of a classical tradition… a unique episode in English architecture. ‘

Nicholas Hawksmoor indeed has left a great impact on church and university architecture in London. Hawksmoor’s design of the six among the 12 churches built after the Great Fire of London, became his crowning glory as an architect. Although sadly by the end of his life, his architectural style had been ignored and mocked by the neo-Palladians, which was explained by the gloom in his letters and in some interests in equally gloomy funereal monuments. Hawksmoor also influenced literature with several poets and authors of the twentieth century use his architecture in their writings.

T. S Eliot has mentioned one of Hawksmoor’s churches in his poem. One piece which carries the very Hawksmoor is the novel of the same title by Peter Ackroyd (1985). It is about a fictional Devil-worshiper Nicholas Dyer being investigated by a twentieth-century detective to uncover the mystery behind a series of murders perpetrated on Dyer’s (Hawksmoor’s) churches, which is a good example of magic realism. The imagery of darkness, occult and spirits manifests in this work which reflects the character and style of Hawkmoor’s architecture.

Hawksmoor’s effort to build the grandiose of Westminster Abbey in All Souls College was incomparable although he never saw its completion. The architecture was finished until after his death. But during his lifetime, he was commendable for managing his work so well that the Abbeys blend together remarkably. Nicholas Hawksmoor could have had a famous master but he deserves to be remembered for his own abilities as one of the finest British architects of any era and his contribution to the history of architecture represents the finest and purest buildings produced by any English architect.

References All Souls College Website. Archtecture of the College. University of Oxford. Retrieved 13 May 2010 from <http://www. all-souls. ox. ac. uk/content/Architecture_of_the_College> Downes, K. Hawksmoor (World of Art) (Paperback). 15 June 1987. pp. 107 Du Prey, P. Hawksmoor’s London Churches: Architecture and Theology. Chicago, 2000. pp. 174-176. Hart, Vaughan, Nicholas Hawksmoor: Rebuilding Ancient Wonders. New Haven, 2002. p. 98 McDonald, M. Restoration: A British Temple Restored. London, 2010. p. 1 Meller, Hugh (1975) St. George’s Bloomsbury: an illustrated guide to the church.

London: St George’s Church ISBN 0 9504224 0 1 Rose, S. ‘Don’t Tell Dan Brown…’ The Guardian Unlimited online. 25 September 2006 retrieved 13 May 2010 from <http://www. guardian. co. uk/artanddesign/2006/sep/25/architecture>. Woodward, C. (2000). Hawksmoor. The Friends of Christ Church Spitalfields, retrieved 14 May 2010 from http://www. christchurchspitalfields. org/v2/hawksmoor/hawksmoor. shtml. Worsley, Giles, Classical Architecture in Britain: The Heroic Age. New Haven, 1995. Zahl, P. ‘Hawksmoor’s London Churches: Architecture and Theology’. Michigan, 2002

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