Londonist Stalks…Nicholas Hawksmoor

By M@ Last edited 214 months ago
Londonist Stalks…Nicholas Hawksmoor
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OK, OK, we know most of you will be sick of reading about Hawksmoor. But Londonist are completer-finisher types, and after stalking so many lesser London luminaries we feel obliged to tackle the great church-building, conspiracy-generating architect. There must be some readers out there who haven’t read Iain Sinclair’s trademark lucidity-shy ramblings on how Hawksmoor’s six churches align with other sites of dubious significance to form a pretty pattern. Or Peter Ackroyd’s erudite reinterpretation in novel form. Or the story-telling genius of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. Or, indeed, the account by our friends at Smoke, whose own Grand Tour of the churches (Issue 4) suggested a hitherto unappreciated culinary mysticism.

So, for the benefit of the six or seven people who’ve never been introduced to this tableau of alignments, secret societies, obelisks and conspiracy, here is our Stalk.

Hawksmoor was the most famous pupil of Sir Christopher Wren. After cutting his teeth (possibly literally if you’re Iain Sinclair) on his master’s projects, Hawksmoor developed into Britain’s greatest Baroque architect. He is most famous for his six London churches, which were intended as part of the underachieving ‘Commission for Building Fifty New Churches’ of 1711. Strangely, given the building’s prominence, it’s a lesser known fact that Hawksmoor also designed the western front of Westminster Abbey. Perhaps this messed up Sinclair’s karma, so has been ignored in recent accounts. As it will be here, while we go in search of his churches.

St Alphege, Greenwich (1712-1714)

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A towering memorial to the oddly named saint, who was supposedly murdered by Vikings on this spot in the 11th Century. St Alphege dominates Greenwich town centre and serves as a useful landmark for navigation. Much of Hawksmoor’s work is now lost: the nave was gutted during the second world war, and the original spire has been encased in a later structure. This is perhaps the least inspiring of the six churches, and feels oddly back-to-front, with the tower set away from the road. Still, it was his first, so we’ll let him off.

St George in the East (1714-1729)

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Standing in the windswept plain of The Highway, St George’s was Hawksmoor’s second stab at church architecture. This time, he pulled off something really special, with a 160-foot tower of complex geometry, topped by an unusual spire like a set of Tudor chimneys bound together. Unfortunately, like at Greenwich, the nave was gutted during WWII, though this has since been rebuilt. The grounds are worth exploring. Obelisks and memorials are spaciously distributed while all the tombstones seem to have migrated to the perimeter. And don’t miss the mural to the Battle of Cable Street at the back of the churchyard.

Christ Church, Spitalfields (1715-1729)

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Perhaps his most famous church, certainly the most dominating, Christ Church menaces the Spitalfields sky like a giant claw, poised to strike. Simple, grand and even a little frightening, it’s no surprise to find that it was built on a plague pit and sits across the road from the site of the most brutal Ripper murder. If you can get into the normally closed gardens, you’ll find a trademark hawksmoor pyramid, which featured heavily in Ackroyd’s novel.

St George’s Bloomsbury (1716-1731)

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Currently undergoing extensive restoration work, St George’s is the most westerly of the six churches. The unusual steeple, hidden behind hoarding in our photo, was designed in the form of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, one of the ancient wonders of the world; sculptures from the long-vanished monument can still be seen at the British Museum, round the corner from Hawksmoor’s church. Crowning the steeple is a statue of George I, which is famously visible in Hogarth’s painting Gin Lane.

St Mary Woolnoth (1716-1727)

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Hawksmoor’s only City church lies hidden away behind the energetic junction of Bank. This most ancient of sites has been hallowed ground for at least 2000 years. Hawksmoor built his most unusual church on the site, following the demolition of a short-lived Wren design that had been cobbled together from the Great Fire remnant of the medieval church. Small and squat, but surprisingly capacious, the Baroque design looks something like a sabre-toothed frog from the rusticated front. Hawksmoor’s church almost suffered the same fate as the Wren predecessor in the early 1900s, when it was due to be dismantled to make way for Bank Tube station. Fortunately, after a public outcry, a compromise was reached whereby only the crypt was destroyed, necessitating the removal of hundreds of interred bodies. Think about that next time you’re passing through the station’s passages late at night.

St Anne’s, Limehouse (1730)

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There’s a feeling of isolation and unease about this church, on a bend in the river where sharp winds whistle round the monuments. Nobody ever seems to be about, except for the local population of vagrants. Once again, the church was badly damaged in WWII, and previously in a fire (1850), but has been beautifully restored. The spacious grounds contain a conspicuous pyramid, possibly originally intended for the spire. This is one of Sinclair’s favourite sites and crops up time and again in his work as part of some great ley line that runs through Canary Wharf and Greenwich.

Hawksmoor also made contributions to several other London churches, most notably the obelisk-topped St Luke's LSO building near Old Street. But none of these was entirely his own work. A full gazetteer can be found here.

How's our stalking, and who should we stalk next?

Last Updated 25 April 2006