Built on rules of strong reason and good fancy

Nicholas Hawksmoor
February 21, 2003

The life and work of Nicholas Hawksmoor has remained an enigma because he published only two tracts during his life (on the Royal Hospital at Greenwich and on Westminster Bridge), and no engravings of his work. His style was being challenged by the Palladian movement for the last 20 years of his life, and the "modesty and great honesty" that his client the duchess of Marlborough valued at Blenheim did not tempt him to fight back at his detractors. He has suffered from being characterised as an assistant to the great architects Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh rather than an architect in his own right.

Kerry Downes showed in his 1959 biographical overview that Hawksmoor deserved far more attention and pointed out the need for detailed study of his styles and sources. Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey's study of the architecture and theology of Hawksmoor's London churches (2000) is one of the most notable attempts to date. Vaughan Hart aims in this book to fill further gaps by closely examining the surviving letters and drawings, approaching Hawksmoor's architecture thematically and roughly chronologically.

Hart's research is extremely thorough and the reader can follow his detective work and the views of other writers with great precision. This approach is necessary because, in the absence of any autobiography, Hart has had to analyse the contents of Hawksmoor's library, which was sold on his death in 1736, tracing this flow of ideas and influences into the buildings and drawings. Although he was unique at the time in having been apprenticed as an architect to Wren, we do not know what Hawksmoor was taught, and we have to make connections between the content of his books and his works. This is where Hart has been most convincing and successful.

Hawksmoor explained to the earl of Carlisle that he used an "architectronicall method", taking the rules of the ancients and using them as a rational starting point to underpin invention, following the principles of "decorum". In architectural terms, this justified Vanbrugh's Temple of the Four Winds at Castle Howard, for it was "founded upon ye rules of ye ancients. I mean by that upon Strong Reason and Good Fancy, joyn'd with Experience and Tryalls." However, such visual allegory can be understood only with educated eyes. Hawksmoor's contemporaries would have understood the use of Hawksmoor's adaptation of classical sources, such as the octagonal Temple of the Winds in Athens as his model for the open stages of his church towers, the eighth side symbolising that the time of the risen Christ was beyond the earthly cycle of seven days.

Hawksmoor's critics have been most disapproving of his "licentious" detailing. However, Hawksmoor was influenced by Serlio's fourth book (1537) where he advocated mixing elements from different orders. John Evelyn had written in his Account (1664 and 1707) that ornament should "become the station and occasion", that is suit the context. Hart's examination of Hawksmoor's churches finds them responding to their surroundings. For example, the churches designed for insalubrious neighbourhoods, such as Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St Anne's, Limehouse, are given astylar elevations. By comparison, those in affluent areas, such as St Mary's Woolnoth and St George's Bloomsbury, were designed with great articulation, even if totally blind. What other principles could Hawksmoor have used to arrive at such different designs for all of his churches for the commissioners if not to match the location and character, when he was supposed to be following a universal model? The use of Gothic at All Souls, Oxford, was approved by Daniel Defoe because of its medieval surroundings, although it can be criticised now for being classical in its symmetry, and the west front of Westminster Abbey is an extraordinary mixture of the two styles.

Hawksmoor's architecture reflected the political power of absolute monarchy. When this changed, Hawksmoor found himself isolated, and his plans for a Via Regia to St Alphage from the Queen's House in Greenwich, and the completion of the hospital as a symbol, a state building rather than a mere almshouse, were disregarded as being inappropriate for only a constitutional monarch.

It is difficult to criticise this book as it is so thorough, and profusely illustrated - essential for understanding architecture so striking and original as Hawksmoor's. It would have been interesting to know more about the relationship of his buildings to the landscape, especially as Hawksmoor owned several paintings by Poussin. There is no biographical information on Hawksmoor's personal life, his family and humble beginnings, as a consequence of the book's thematic structure. Thus, it is in parts a dry read, especially as assessment of his architecture is left to the very end.

Hawksmoor pointed out to his Palladian critics that rules themselves do not produce good architecture. Hart concludes that Hawksmoor's buildings have a unique signature and are as haunting as any Picasso. That's a subjective view I can agree with.

N. E. Bridges is an architect practising in London.

Nicholas Hawksmoor: Rebuilding Ancient Wonders

Author - Vaughan Hart
ISBN - 0 300 09699 2
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 299

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