… a dark tale @ the Hawksmoor exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

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?

Left photo: Painting of Christ Church Spitalfields by anonymous artist around 1875/Middle photo: P.32 of Alan Moor and Eddie Cambell’s ‘From Hell’ Graphic novel (1999)/Right photo: panel from the exhibition

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.

First photo: Royal Academy of Arts picture of St. George Bloomsbury/ Second photo: Celia Paul’s 2010 painting of St. George Bloomsbury/Third photo: panel from the exhibition/Fourth photo: Office of Sir John Soan RA St.George Bloomsbury produced to accompany Royal Academy Lecture IV 1807

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.

Left photo: Nicholas Hawksmoor Greenwich Central Dome/ Middle photo: Charles E. Hardaker’s 1966 painting of St. Mary Woolworth in the City of London called ‘Hawksmoor Baroque’/ Royal Academy Hawksmoor exhibition May 2012

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

  1. Kind of irrelevant but it is so nice to click on a picture and actually be able to see it in a viewable and readable size. Never heard of the bloke but these dark urban legends sound interesting

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