Exploring the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor in London with writer and curator Owen Hopkins

Exploring the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor in London with writer and curator Owen Hopkins

Here, Hawksmoor expert Owen Hopkins – author of Blue Crow Media’s Nicholas Hawksmoor London Map (2021) – explains why the elusive genius of English Baroque architecture, active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, fascinates him so much. Read on to learn about Hawkmoor’s signature architectural elements and how best to plan your Hawksmoor-tour across London. (Photography by Nigel Green.)

What is your relationship to Hawksmoor’s architecture – what inspires you about it, and why do you think people should appreciate it?

I became aware of Hawksmoor when I was an undergraduate at the Courtauld Institute, studying the English Baroque and Christopher Wren. I saw photographs of Hawksmoor’s  work and was bowled over. I couldn’t believe I could just hop on the bus and visit these awe-inspiring buildings, which were like nothing I had ever seen before.

I was fascinated in how his designs emerged in a city that was changing into modern London –  I find these moments of transition particularly interesting. Yet at the same time, Hawksmoor’s churches have these amazing timeless qualities. They stand both inside and outside time. I was captivated by them and eager to find out more, and explore how other people experience them.

What should one look for when distinguishing a Hawksmoor design?

Hawksmoor has some signature elements that you can look out for. One of these is the giant keystones, which are not just oversized, they are keystones that are essentially a structural element, but blown up in scale to epic proportions. St George’s Bloomsbury (above) has some of the most epic of these keystones, emblematic of Hawksmoor’s classical approach to architecture, which saw it less as a system and more as a symbolic language.

While Wren would use classical elements as a starting point, Hawksmoor would start with the volume and form, then apply classical elements in a formal way. This resulted in abrupt changes to scale and oversized elements, such as the keystone. Looking out for that element, you can get a sense of what he was trying to do – reaching beyond the classical language to transform architecture into an almost sculptural entity.

What makes Hawksmoor so enigmatic for his time?

I wrote a book about Hawksmoor (From the Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor, Reaktion Books, 2015), in which I explored his enigma. Since the 1970s, Hawksmoor has been this vessel into which many theories have been poured – many of them with no basis in fact, such as those of the occult and satanic rituals.

It led me to question why this was. In part it is because in comparison to his contemporaries, we know relatively little about him. Also important is that the location of his buildings are often in historically overlooked parts of London with, in the case of Whitechapel, occasionally sinister histories. But, it also comes back to the buildings themselves.

They are like lightning rods for fantasy – from the fiction of Peter Ackroyd with the paintings of Leon Kossoff. That they are able to sustain this, I think is a testament to what Hawksmoor created, an architecture that borders on sculpture in its ability to act as both a vessel filled with interpretations, yet at the same time remain active and with an enduring directional quality.

Which is your favourite on the map and why?

I’ve always been drawn to St George in the East (above) in Wapping, which is perhaps Hawksmoor’s most idiosyncratic building. St Anne's Limehouse evokes a more classical beauty. While Christ Church Spitalfields has this incredible image quality.

St George in the East in contrast has a very eerie presence in its exposed location on the Highway. The design is truly Hawksmoor at his weirdest. It is very unsettling when you see it. It is a burnt out shell, with a modern church inserted inside. With Hawksmoor there is often a real contrast between the interior and exterior, because when you cross the threshold of a Hawksmoor building, you cross into a different world. And of course here, where you go from Baroque exterior to modern interior, that’s heightened.

We have an afternoon in London – can you suggest a walking tour where we might visit a few projects?

You can just about visit all the churches in a day. I like to visit them in chronological order to witness the rapid development of his style. Start at St Alfege (above) in Greenwich, then take the DLR to St Anne Limehouse. The DLR again to St George in the East. From there you can either get the bus or walk to Christ Church, Spitalfields. The next stop is St Mary Woolnoth which sits on top of Bank Station. And then finally back on the Central Line to Holborn and St George Bloomsbury.

A more bite-sized tour would start at St George Bloomsbury, before taking the Central Line east to St Mary Woolnoth, then back on it again to Christ Church Spitalfields – to gain a sense of the breadth of Hawksmoor’s style.

Nicholas Hawksmoor London Map is available to purchase here

Nicholas Hawskmoor London Map