Hawksmoor, Nicholas

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Hawksmoor, Nicholas (c. 1661-1736): English, Architecture

A pupil of Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor’s originality is best recognized in his designs for six London churches (1711-18), which display an ingenious combination of Baroque, Classical and Gothic elements. Hawksmoor was born in Nottinghamshire around 1661. Around the age of eighteen, he became a clerk to Christopher Wren in London. Wren trained Hawksmoor as an architect during the 1680’s and employed him as an administrator during work on Winchester Palace and Chelsea Hospital. Sketches from this time show a development from naïve, amateurish drawings in the early 1680’s to competent, imaginative architectural draftsmanship late in the decade.

In 1689, Hawksmoor was appointed Clerk of Works at Kensington Palace, a position which he held until 1715, when he became Clerk of Works for Whitehall, Westminster and St. James’s. From 1691-1710, Hawksmoor was principal draftsman for St. Paul’s Cathedral, producing working drawings for the project. In the late 1690’s, Hawksmoor received the commission to remodel and add to Easton Neston, a country house in Northamptonshire built according to Wren’s plans a decade or two earlier. Easton Neston is notable both for the use of tall windows and stone detailing to create an unusual vertical emphasis on the exterior, and for the efficiency and economy of the design of the interior. Simultaneously, Hawksmoor, working under Wren, appears to have designed the King William Court (1699-07) and the Queen Anne Block (1700-03) in the Greenwich Hospital.

Beginning in 1699 with Castle Howard in Yorkshire, Hawksmoor worked as an assistant to Vanbrugh, Sir John, a partnership which continued during the first half of the work on Blenheim Palace (1705-16). Hawksmoor’s extensive practical experience was undoubtedly valuable to the novice architect. Hawksmoor’s own correspondence, his designs and many of the buildings’ details reveal his influence on Vanbrugh; their collaborative work resulted in a joint style distinct from that which appears in their independent projects.

Hawksmoor’s career as an architect flourished in the first decades of the eighteenth-century. As a result of his acquaintance with Dr. George Clarke, an amateur architect and Fellow of All Souls, he was involved in projects in Oxford from 1708. Designs were submitted for Queen’s College and All Souls. Although these were never executed, Hawksmoor was later responsible for building the spectacularly Gothic north quadrangle of All Souls (1716). In 1712, he received the commission for the Clarendon Building, a plain, even sparse structure made monumental by the massive Roman Doric porticoes at the north entrance.

1711 saw Hawksmoor appointed as surveyor by the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, a committee largely made up of architects who were also civil servants (including Wren and Vanbrugh), Tory politicians and Church of England divines of the “high church” persuasion. The churches were to be built in new neighborhoods with the proceeds of the coal tax, originally implemented to fund the reconstruction of the city churches and St. Paul’s Cathedral following the Great Fire. Hawksmoor’s involvement with the commission lasted until it was disbanded in 1733. Twelve churches were constructed under the commission, six of these according to Hawksmoor’s designs. Like the Clarendon Building, St. Alphege, Greenwich (1712-14) uses a giant Doric order to create an impression of monumentality. Hawksmoor designed three churches in Stepney, Saint-George-in-the-East, Wapping, Saint Anne, Limehouse, and Christ Church, Spitalfields (constructed from 1714-29/30). The classically-inspired church of Saint Anne is embellished with buttresses and pinnacles reminiscent of Gothic towers. This evocation of the Gothic is most pronounced in Christ Church, Spitalfields, where it is combined with Venetian windows, an unusual use of a neo-Palladian feature. Hawksmoor’s final two churches, Saint Mary Woolnoth, City (1716-24) and Saint George, Bloomsbury (1716-30) are based on the “square within a square” plan which is also the basic structure of the other churches. This emphasizes the intersection of the East-West and North-South axes at right angles, creating a symmetry and centrality popular in seventeenth-century architecture.

The growing preference for the neo-Palladian over the Baroque style lessened Hawksmoor’s popularity in the final decades of his life. From 1722-25, he was responsible for finishing work on Blenheim Palace. He undertook a number of minor commissions and worked on the west towers of Westminster Abbey from 1734 until his death (1736). Like his other works, the towers display Hawksmoor’s ingenuity in combining architectural styles with harmonious and striking effect.

Further reading:

P. d. l. R. du Prey, Hawksmoor’s London Churches: Architecture and Theology, 2000.

P. Ackroyd, Hawksmoor, 1993.

Janet Bertsch