Nicholas Hawksmoor – London Churches (Book Review by Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord)

Nicholas Hawksmoor - London Churches (Book Review by Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord)

This book pays homage to the eight remarkable churches built in London to designs by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Constructed following an Act of Parliament in 1711 to build fifty new churches in the city, two of the eight were in collaboration with John James and several were affected by the Blitz, resulting in the demolition of one (St. John Horsleydown). Some have been appropriated for other uses in the meantime.

The centrepiece of this alluring publication is the stunning collection of stills of the seven remaining churches, by the renowned architectural photographer Helene Binet. This portfolio of images are, in their own right, outstanding.

As a proponent of analogue photography, Binet’s pictures are a hymn in film to the imagination and beauty of Hawksmoor’s churches. Individually, every still is a work of art to contemplate and ponder; wonderfully executed and reproduced in crisp, large format black and white photography. In combination the book creates a sequence of timeless images that celebrate the rich architectural language of these wonderful churches.

This publication is a 21st Century visual anthology of these eight early 18th Century churches. Each church is illustrated with photographs placing them in 21st Century London before quietly contemplating the geometry, manipulation of scale and modelling of Hawkmoor’s eclectic Baroque. These detailed and abstracted views are deliberately removed from the context of place and time. It is ostensibly a wonderfully executed photo essay augmented by measured drawings and short, scene-setting texts. It presents each building as an artefact, inviting the reader to interpret the concise visual imagery for themselves.

Beyond Binet’s photographs the book attempts an intriguing, but uneasy fusion of contemporary architectural graphics and presentation applied to the exquisite English Baroque of Hawksmoor. The vibrant orange measured drawings on a black background would feel more appropriate for depicting contemporary design. However the simple clarity of the unannotated drawings (whilst lacking the energy, spirit and vigour of the selection of original hand-drawn design sketches also reproduced) allow study of the plan, section and elevations of each church and direct comparison across the collective portfolio.

In a succinct introduction Mohsen Mostafavi, the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Design, sketches out Hawksmoor’s corpus within the wider historic context of Wren and Vanbrugh, London after the Fire and the fictional retelling of history via Peter Ackroyd’s eponymous novel. The introductory essay is short and concise, but provides just about enough of an historical framework for those with vague familiarity to appreciate the breadth and depth of Hawksmoor’s eclectic portfolio of ecclesiastical design, and its place in history.

The significance of each church spire as an urban marker in London’s expanding cityscape after the Great Fire is emphasised in the introduction. However, the book thereafter lacks any apparent structure to highlight or interpret chronological or stylistic progression. It’s left to the reader to study, draw conclusions and marvel at a creative final two decades of this architectural lifework. Those looking for a scholarly exploration of recurring themes and predilections in Hawksmoor’s work should look elsewhere.

For aficionados with thorough knowledge of Hawksmoor’s lifework this book will not provide an in depth architectural or historical assessment of this diverse array of churches. For those with a passing acquaintance it is liable to pique your interest and heighten the desire to find out more and visit these fine churches. From whichever perspective, despite some curious editorial decisions, this is a beautifully produced, accessible publication that invites, indeed demands, the reader to study these churches and take a fresh look at Hawksmoor.

This book review was first published in the RIAS Quarterly Magazine Spring 2016 Issue 25.
Reviewed by Graham Ross, Austin-Smith:Lord (Feb 2016)

Nicholas Hawksmoor
London Churches
By Mohsen Mostafavi and Helene Binet
Lars Muller Publishers