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Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Churches

November 2, 2020
by the gentle author

St George’s, Bloomsbury 1716 – 1731

In 1711 Nicholas Hawksmoor was fifty years old yet, although he had already worked with Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral and for John Vanbrugh on Castle Howard, the buildings that were to make his name were still to come. In that year, an Act of Parliament created the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches to serve the growing population on the fringes of the expanding city. Only twelve of these churches were ever built, but Nicholas Hawksmoor designed six of them and – miraculously – they have all survived, displaying his unique architectural talent to subsequent generations and permitting his reputation to rise as time has passed.

Living in the parish of Christ Church and within easy reach of the other five Hawksmoor churches, I realised that sooner or later I should make a pilgrimage to visit them all. And so, taking advantage of some fleeting spells of sunlight and clear skies in recent days, I set out to the west, the south and to the east from Spitalfields to photograph these curious edifices.

In 1710, the roof of the ancient church of St Alfege in Greenwich collapsed and the parishioners petitioned the Commission to rebuild it and Hawksmoor took this on as the first of his London churches. Exceeding any repair, he remodelled the building entirely, although his design was “improved” and the pilasters added to the exterior by fellow architect Thomas Archer, compromising the clean geometric lines that characterise Hawksmoor’s other churches. His vision was further undermined when the Commission refused to fund replacing the medieval tower with an octagonal lantern as he wished, so he retained the motif, employing it at St George-in-the-East a few years later. Latterly, the tower of St Alfege was refaced and reworked by Hawksmoor’s collaborator John James in 1730. Yet in spite of the different hands at work, the structure presents a satisfyingly harmonious continuity of design today, even if the signature of Hawksmoor is less visible than in his other churches.

Before Hawksmoor’s involvement with St Alfege was complete in 1716, he had already begun designs for St George-in-the-East, St Anne’s Limehouse and Christ Church Spitalfields. In each case, he was constructing new churches without any limitation of pre-existing structures or the meddling hands of other architects. These three churches share many characteristics, of arched doorways counterpointed by arched and circular windows, and towers that ascend telescopically, in graduated steps, resolving into a spire at Christ Church, a lantern at St George-in-the-East and a square tower at St Anne’s. This is an energetic forceful mode of architecture, expressed in bold geometric shapes that could easily become overbearing if the different elements of the design were not balanced within the structure, but the success of these churches is that they are always proportionate to themselves. While the outcome of Hawksmoor’s architecture is that they are awe-inspiring buildings to approach, cutting anyone down to size, conversely they grant an increased sense of power to those stepping from the door. These are churches designed to make you feel small when you go in and big when you come out.

In 1716, Hawksmoor began work on what were to be the last two of his solo designs for churches, St Mary Woolnoth and St George’s, Bloomsbury. Moving beyond the vocabulary of his three East End churches, he took both of these designs in equally ambitious but entirely different and original directions. St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London was constructed upon a restricted site and is the smallest of Hawksmoor’s churches, yet the limitation of space resulted in an intense sombre design, as if the energy of his larger buildings were compressed and it is a dynamic structure held in tense equilibrium, like a coiled spring or a bellows camera held shut.

St George’s Bloomsbury was the last of Hawksmoor’s churches and his most eccentric, completed in 1731 when he was seventy as the culmination of twenty extraordinarily creative years. Working again upon a constricted site, he contrived a building with a portico based upon the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek and a stepped tower based upon the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus which he adorned with a statue of George I upon the top, flanked by the lion and unicorn to celebrate the recent defeat of the Jacobites. Undertaken with such confidence and panache, Hawksmoor’s design is almost convincing and the enclosed location spares exposure, permitting the viewer to see only ever a portion of the building from any of the available angles.

The brooding presence of Hawksmoor’s churches has inspired all manner of mythologies woven around the man and his edifices. Yet the true paradox of Hawksmoor’s work stems from the fact that while he worked in the Classical style, he could never afford the opportunity to undertake the Grand Tour and see the works of the Renaissance masters and ruins of antiquity for himself. Thus, he fashioned his own English interpretation which was an expression of a Gothic imagination working in the language of Classical architecture. It is this curious disconnection that makes his architecture so fascinating and gives it such power. Nicholas Hawksmoor was incapable of the cool emotional restraint implicit in Classicism, he imbued it with a ferocity that was the quintessence of English Baroque.

St Alfege, Greenwich 1712-16

St Mary Woolnoth, Bank 1716-24

St George-in-the-East, Wapping  1714-1729

St Anne’s, Limehouse 1714-1730

Christ Church, Spitalfields 1714-1729

You may also like to take a look at

A View of Christ Church Spitalfields

Spires of City Churches

In City Churchyards

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Emma Tarran permalink
    November 2, 2020

    This is so timely! I just read Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor, and found surprisingly few good pictures of the churches. Here they all are in one place. Thanks!

  2. Neil B permalink
    November 2, 2020

    Fascinating to learn the history of these churches. Love the shot of Christ Church, with that extraordinary portico! Keep it up gentle author very nearly half way on your journey.

  3. November 2, 2020

    ‘These are churches designed to make you feel small when you go in and big when you come out’ – excellent description

    Unfortunately not all easy to get in: St George Bloomsbury seems permanently locked; St Alphege we were laughed at by a gang of thuggish volunteers for being too late (a similar experience also at Inwood’s St Pancras New and at St Bart the Not so Great)

  4. Malcolm permalink
    November 2, 2020

    An excellent piece of writing. The genius of Hawksmoor was his vision of a different kind of Church architecture. Combining seemingly disparate styles into his designs his work is unique and powerful. St Mary Woolnoth is a masterpiece. Squeezed into a tiny site, this is a building with immense strength and a powerful presence. Hawksmoor also designed parts of St Luke’s, Old Street, notably the magnificent tower.

  5. Margaret Mcdermott permalink
    November 2, 2020

    I did that pilgrimage ten years ago visiting from Nottingham.The one near you was completely deserted which added to the general spooky feeling of his churches.I visited the pub opposite and the landlady told me there were often flickering lights in the church yard.He was a most curious character.

  6. Pamela Traves permalink
    November 3, 2020

    Gorgeous Historic Churches!! Thank You So Much.??????

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