Why Hawksmoor Matters

Why Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Revival Matters

The British architect who collaborated with Wren and designed some of London’s grandest churches finally gets his due.

Architect, March 2016

Artistic reputations often rise, fall, and shift over time. Shakespeare, for instance, was once regarded as an uneducated bumpkin (a “poet of nature,” as Samuel Johnson wrote). Contemporaries of the English painter J.M.W. Turner dismissed his abstract late works—now celebrated—as symptoms of senility. (John Ruskin, otherwise a fervent admirer, lamented that they were “of wholly inferior value.”)

Even amid this context, the fall and rise of Nicholas Hawksmoor is an astonishing story. The master of the English Baroque—who worked on St. Paul’s Cathedral alongside Sir Christopher Wren, left several other incomparable churches looming over London, and collaborated with Sir John Vanbrugh on the grand country estate of Castle Howard in North Yorkshire—was nearly lost to history. Critics long portrayed Hawksmoor as a minor and eccentric talent, an assistant to Wren and Vanbrugh who couldn’t match them in any respect.

And those were the friendly verdicts. After the Palladianist Lord Burlington gained influence in the 1720s, Hawksmoor’s esoteric blend of the classical and the Gothic fell out of favor. By the 19th century, writes Owen Hopkins in From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor (Reaktion Books, 2016), his churches were viewed by some Londoners as grotesque and prison-like (partly because of the soot that had blackened their white bands of Portland stone).

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