Nicholas Hawksmoor

His reputation is overshadowed by that of Wren and Vanbrugh, but Hawksmoor's architecture still has the power to haunt and inspire.

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Christ Church, Spitalfields, London. © RIBA Library Photographs Collection All Souls College, Oxford: the Codrington Library, in 1957. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection Design model for Easton Neston, Northamptonshire. © RIBA Library Drawings and Archives Collections

Despite long periods of neglect and attack from nature and German bombing raids, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s (1661 – 1736) somewhat “haunting ” churches survive in London, including Christ Church, Spitalfields. His reputation has suffered from phases of obscurity due to changing fashions, and the reaction to his unique interpretation of the Baroque which seems to have drawn influence from different corners of antiquity and the modern world (Hart, 2002). Eventually, history was written so that he was eclipsed by his collaborators Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh; even so, his exotic-looking Baroque buildings have still managed to feed the imagination of artists both on paper and in stone.

It is to the buildings we must always return. They must speak for themselves. They will repel us or fascinate us, but we cannot escape from their strange haunting power.

'Hawksmoor',  1979, by Kerry  Downes,   p.233

Clarendon Building, Broad Street, Oxford, in 1957. © Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection
Clarendon Building, Broad Street, Oxford.
© Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Having survived almost three centuries, Christ Church, Spitalfields, is still able to command authority in its neighbourhood of predominately Georgian dwellings and Victorian structures. It took much of the post-war period to restore the derelict church back to partially how it would have looked in Hawksmoor’s day.  From the 1970s, restoration work began and the building saved from demolition; a sign of the growing admiration for Hawksmoor’s work and reversing the years of decay the church had suffered during one of its lowest ebbs.

Since the first edition of Kerry Downes’s book  Hawksmoor in 1959, there has been increasing recognition of the architect’s considerable achievements from his country houses like Easton Neston, to All Souls College in the more urban context of Oxford. In 1997 the RIBA held an exhibition looking at Hawksmoor’s role in replanning Oxford. Now, 350 years after his birth, it seems we are finally realising the extent of his buildings as a source of wonder and inspiration to writers, painters and other architects such as Denys Lasdun and Sir John Soane. 

References (available from the British Architectural Library , RIBA)

  • Downes, K., 1979.  Hawksmoor.  2nd ed. London: Zwemmer
  • Hart, V., 2002.  Nicholas Hawksmoor: rebuilding ancient wonders.  New Haven ; London: Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.   

Article by Wilson Yau, British Architectural Library, RIBA

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