Nicholas Hawksmoor has always been UK architecture’s underdog. Having worked at the side of Christopher Wren for a number of years on projects as important as St. Paul’s cathedral and Greenwich hospital, initially he was rather known for that, than for the few but really important buildings he designed on his own. Looking at Christ Church Spitalfields or St. George in the East one realises that his design idiom was as unique as to pronounce his contribution to English baroque pivotal. Regardless of the fact that currently he is celebrated as an architectural genius, he acquired his fame throughout modernity because his churches were associated with dark urban legends to the point he was mentioned as the devil-architect. This is partly because of the common knowledge that he was a free-mason. However Wren was as well but nothing of the sort was ever mentioned about him. Why is it then that Hawksmoor became the inspiration for the dark graphic novel ‘From Hell’ which depicts Jack the Ripper’s famous killings, or Ian Sinclair’s poem Lud Heat (1975) where his churches’ placement within the city’s fabric was supposed to have a cryptic meaning?
In the exhibition of Hawksmoor’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts, these mystic stories were mentioned next to copies of some of the architect’s original drawings and a few videos where contemporary architects and theorists such as Ptolemy Dean speak of Hawksmoor’s architecture with great enthusiasm. Regardless of the exhibition’s small size, the information provided was well rounded and comprised an interesting and concise whole.
Having examined all the ‘evidence’ provided I still could not make up my mind on why it took centuries for Hawksmoor to acquire his proper position in the architectural ‘hall of fame’. My guess would be that he was so much more ahead of his time that he was literally not understood in order to be celebrated by his contemporaries or even the next generations. There is a halo of mystery and wonder around any artist that is as charismatic. In Hawksmoor’s case it even lead to attributing to him supernatural aspirations and powers. Beyond doubt, being exquisitely talented as he was was already supernatural.
Read more about Hawksmoor here
Read Steve Rose’s 2006 Guardian article about Hawksmoor here
Scroll down to the ‘ Devil’s Architect’ part of the Fortean Times article called City of Symbols. link here