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HAWKSMOOR'S LONDON CHURCHES
Reviewed by ANDRE BEAUMONT
Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren's pupil, was the most inventive of England's baroque architects. Now revered by modern architects as one of Britain's greatest creative geniuses of all time, the stature of his work was readily overlooked through whole periods of British history.
Only post-war have architectural critics brought wider public awareness of the exciting quality of so much of Britain's architectural heritage that it is a miracle that so much of Hawksmoor's work has escaped the ravages of time.
Twenty years ago Hawksmoor's greatest church, Christ's Church, Spitalfields was falling down, neglected by its diocese. Only ten years ago did its rescue commence under the auspices of the Friends of Christ's Church Spitalfields, a charity dedicated to its restoration and re-use. As for the Palladians and the Victorians, they condemned Hawksmoor's buildings out of hand as badly proportioned and ill-conceived because, with their penchant for architectural fashion, they believed so strongly and exclusively in certain styles.
Examples of Hawksmoor's work can, of course, be found all over Britain from places as far afield as Blenheim Palace to Castle Howard, but for a day out there can be little better than a tour of his six London churches.
St Georges, Bloomsbury
A starting point is the most central of the churches, St. Georges in Bloomsbury Way. Immediately striking is the chunky steeple tower, itself a sculpture in stone. Quite unlike steeples by anyone other than Hawksmoor, it is more like a pyramid, surmounted not by a deity but a statue of George I. This playful, fantasy element in his steeples and towers is one of the hallmarks of Hawksmoor but it is also a mark of his creativity, being used to find and explore new forms.
Inside, the plan is a clever and sophisticated one because the altar was once located in the oval part of the church with services conducted on an axis at right-angles to the present one. The architect produced a central cube space, lit from above - a theme found again and again - with the ambiguity of two axes running through it. Much has been written about it but if one goes outside again and looks at the four elevations, the plan is readily understood by anyone. Everything becomes all of a piece with each side telling you what is behind. Stairs, too, once ran up both sides of the tower, allowing it to be another important entrance.
Although Hawksmoor knew that his church would be hemmed in on most sides this is a church that would greatly benefit - in being understood - if chance ever gave it more space around it.
The next church is a little gem in the City, St. Mary Woolnoth, near Bank Station. All six of his churches were financed by the coal tax of 1711 and this church is now older than all the neighbouring buildings. It is in a sensitive area because it is very close to where Peter Palumbo had intended to build the Mansion House tower, a scheme that would have created different urban spaces.
One eminent critic has described the front elevation of St. Mary Woolnoth as 'like a piece of compressed matter likely to explode at any moment'.
St Mary Woolnoth
The elevation is very powerful. All great works of art appeal to the emotions at once, even before we understand why, and the way Hawksmoor has sculpted a complex set of emotions into stone has made this the most subtle of his churches. Entering from a very short, dark lobby under the tower, one is thrust again into a cube lit from above, this time from oval windows or 'lunettes'. Although the interior was unwisely altered by the celebrated Victorian architect, Butterfield, there is still the contrasts of light and shade and the play of light as shafts of sunlight break through on sunny days.
An interesting feature is that the banners bearing the arms of the Queen Mother's ancestor, Sir Martin Bowes-Lyon, hang in the church.
The church has had a lucky history. It came twice under the threat of demolition but survived both and, in the war, it was the only church to escape bomb damage. Its crypt was bought in 1900 by the Underground railway but to this day it remains a church in the soundest structural order.
Christ's Church, Spitalfields, near Bishopsgate, is the cause celebre of Hawksmoor restoration and conservation. Towering over the neighbouring streets 'like a pile of architectural fantasy', it is a recognised masterpiece.
Here at Spitalfields there is an almost unbelievably vigorous modelling of stone on the exterior which immediately strikes the senses. As at St. Mary Woolnoth one enters from a short, gloomy space under the belfry tower into the brighter nave which is pierced by shafts of sunlight from above.
Christ's Church Spitalfields
Like St. Mary Woolnoth, its interior has been damaged by a Victorian architect this time Ewan Christian, who removed the balconies. The hope of the restorers is to produce the most faithful reconstruction of a Hawksmoor church ever undertaken.
St. George-in-the-East is a brilliant white shell of a Hawksmoor church. Its walls have been cleaned to make it as startling as it must have been the day it was built. The interior and the roof were lost to fire-bombs in the war but a modern church was built within the walls that survived, in the sixties, and from it one can see the bones of a Hawksmoor church as one can from no other. The tower elevation, the pepperpots and the almost byzantine rear elevation are testaments to the creative imagination of Hawksmoor, forever recombining elements.
St. Anne's, Limehouse has a dramatic tower, which, unlike the other churches combines circular elements in the planning. It is built up in a wonderfully experimental way, almost Gothic in effect, and incorporates some of the tricks with space and shapes found at St. Mary Woolnoth and Christ's Church, Spitalfields.
Its side elevations, are much simpler, and in many ways, less successful. The interior, however, seems more assertive than those of the similar St. Alfege, Greenwich.
St. Alfege sits happily on the main roads into Greenwich. Its massive, arched opening in its entrance portico is striking from any viewpoint and it is a stimulating building to wander around from the outside. The tower is by Hawksmoor but the steeple is a little disappointing because it was added later by Hawksmoor's fellow Surveyor, Thomas Archer, and is a spindly little thing in comparison to Hawksmoor's massive designs.
The very spacious interior, restored after the war, features royal pews so close to the top of the pulpit that one commentator wrote that a bored prince could doubtless bring a sermon to a rapid end with a tap of a walking stick on the top of the pulpit.
St. Alfege is of course in Greenwich, which as a place, is an architectural journey in itself.
Nevertheless, a visit to any of the six churches will rapidly dispel the view that these masterpieces cannot be readily understood in their essentials by everyone.
Click here for review of St Mary Woolnoth