Hawksmoor’s London Churches

Pierre du Prey’s highly regarded book on Hawksmoor’s London Churches published in 2000 remains in print today in both hardback and paperback. Hugh Pagan writes an appreciative review.

HAWKSMOOR’s LONDON CHURCHES ARCHITECTURE AND THEOLOGY (by) Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey. Chicago and London, The University of Chicago Press 2000.

The six remarkable London churches designed by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor between June 1712 and July 1716 are exceptional in a British architectural context in that although they were commissioned within a short space of time from the same architect for the same purpose by the same official body (the Commissioners for Building Fifty New Churches in London), each has a very definite individuality which transcends mere variation on a common architectural theme. As Professor Pierre Du Prey argues in his stimulating discussion of the complex issues involved, this arises because Hawksmoor’s designs evolved not merely from his very considerable knowledge of the repertoire of classical architecture, but also as an imaginative response on his part to varying elements in the historical and liturgical background to the Commissioners’ church building programme.

This is the more surprising in that Hawksmoor, initially a magistrate’s clerk in Nottinghamshire, seems to have had no academic education, and must have picked up everything that he knew about architecture and related intellectual topics during the long years that he had spent as “domestic clerk”, draughtsman and general man of business in the architectural office of Sir Christopher Wren. It is however important to bear in mind that Wren’s office was a consciously intellectual environment, in which, as Du Prey demonstrates, Hawksmoor was encouraged at an early date to work out as a theoretical exercise the architectural character of so impractical a building as the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. In such an office an intelligent employee might easily acquire by osmosis a sufficient knowledge of most of the matters in which Wren was himself interested, architectural and non-architectural alike.

Where Du Prey breaks new ground is in his contention that Hawksmoor’s designs reflect a specific interest in the architecture of the “primitive Christians”, in tune with the Commissioners’ “theological orientation toward an early Christian model”. It is not necessary here to credit Hawksmoor with any profound mastery of the published literature on early Christian architecture and liturgical practice, for George Wheler’s An Account of the Churches, or Places of Assembly of the Primitive Christians, published in 1689, was a sufficient introduction to the subject and a readily available text of which Wren is likely to have acquired a copy at the time of its publication (Du Prey cites various other more recondite publications by Anglican divines, but although Hawksmoor may have been directed to one or two of these at the time he was working on his designs, none of these would have been of any very specific assistance in his task).

What may well have been the decisive prompter in this context is that Hawksmoor had sight of a four-page manuscript favouring “the old manner of building churches” by the celebrated biblical and Anglo-Saxon scholar George Hickes, written by Hickes for the Commissioners’ benefit at this precise time, as a critical response to an earlier submission by Sir John Vanbrugh regarding the architectural character of the Commissioners’ intended churches. This manuscript, now at Yale, appears to have gone unnoticed by architectural scholars since its acquisition in 1953 from that well-liked dealer in autographs and manuscripts, the late Miss Winnie Myers (not “Winney Myers” as Du Prey records her), and similarities in wording and spelling between Hickes’s text and Hawksmoor’s marginal annotations to a surviving ground plan by him of a “Basilica after the Primitive Christians” lead Du Prey to the conclusion that the two are linked.

Du Prey also sheds fresh light on many individual features of the architecture of each of the churches concerned, and any future architectural tourist who takes the trouble to visit Hawksmoor’s three East London churches, St. Mary Woolnoth in the City of London, St. George’s, Bloomsbury, or St. Alphege’s, Greenwich, will be well-advised to look at each of these buildings in the light of Du Prey’s new hypotheses. Those who get as far as Greenwich should particularly ponder the purpose of the great carved bollards which punctuate the perimeter wall of St. Alphege’s : are these simply bollards, or, as Du Prey suggests, evocations by Hawksmoor of the sacrificial altars which might once have surrounded a Romano-British temple on the same site ? Doubtless the architectural historian of some centuries hence will pose very similar questions about the symbolic significance of that Millennium Dome just up the road !