Arcane architecture: The unceasing influence of Nicholas Hawksmoor


St Lukes Islington

350 years after his birth, Nicholas Hawksmoor is the focus of a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, which attempts to trace the architect’s posthumous impact on British artists, architects and writers.

In the late seventeenth century, the young Hawksmoor studied under Sir Christopher Wren with whom he worked on projects including Chelsea Hospital, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and Greenwich Hospital, and by about 1700 he had become recognised as an eminent figure of the English Baroque. However, his interpretation of the prevalent style was imbued with influences derived from his own research; from the decadent monuments of Antiquity and its Renaissance, to the mysticism of the Middle Ages.

Many of his own projects were sadly never realised, such as the financially doomed project for Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and his design for the west towers of Westminster Abbey was only executed after his death in 1736.

Easton Neston

His legacy would be ecclesiastical. As part of an act passed by parliament to build 50 new churches in and around London in 1711, Hawksmoor designed six churches and a further two in collaboration with his co-surveyor, John James. Only twelve of the initially proposed fifty were ever completed, thus his designs constituted half of the entire series.

These six churches have come to be synonymous with Hawksmoor’s extraordinary vision and confident injection of anomalous architectural signifiers of other ages; his own designs merge otherworldly Gothic with the elegant regularity of Classical design, while his obelisk spires and comet-shaped weather vane remain the presiding features of the collaborative work between Hawksmoor and his more conformist contemporary, James.

Yet today Hawksmoor’s churches are perhaps most well known for their retrospective association with the occult. In 1975, poet Iain Sinclair published Nicholas Hawksmoor: His Churches, claiming that the pattern of the architect’s designs – geographically forming a pentagram – are indicative of Theistic Satanism; a notion that was elucidated upon in a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell that contentiously suggested Jack the Ripper performed human sacrifice in Hawksmoor’s buildings as part of a preternatural experiment.

This preoccupation with Hawksmoor has emerged in the work of artists and writers throughout and beyond the twentieth century; referred to in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop (1938), and forming the axis of Peter Ackroyd’s postmodern novel, Hawksmoor (1985), to name but a few. Piecing together such relics of the architect’s lingering presence, the Royal Academy’s original form of tribute, Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination shows how Hawksmoor has continued to permeate Britain’s cultural sphere beyond the grave.

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