Friday, 16 September 2016

To the devil an architect?

London was enjoying something of a little mini heatwave (I'd heard it'd been the hottest September day for over a century) so I sat for a while in the gardens on Bloomsbury Square catching some early evening rays before meeting Mark for a pizza and a pint in Sicilian Avenue's Holborn Whippet.

No matter how hot London may've been this week it'd be as nothing compared to the home of Nicholas Hawksmoor's fabled employer. None other than Satan himself. Beelzebub. Old Nick. Lucifer. The beast, the liar, the son of perdition, and the angel of the bottomless pit.

Though of course, in reality, Hawksmoor didn't work for the devil at all. He was an 18th century baroque architect whose grand buildings and preference for Portland stone over brick make his six extant London churches familiar and popular sights around the city to this day.

Owen Hopkins (the writer, historian, and architectural curator) has, literally, written the book on Hawksmoor and was at the Conway Hall to talk to the London Fortean Society about him. Both the book and the talk were titled From the Shadows:The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

A few years back I'd led Mark, and another friend Chris, on a walking tour of Hawksmoor's churches. We walked from East to West and as luck would have it Owen delivered his lecture in the same direction.

He, and we, began with St Alfege's in Greenwich. Of medieval origin the church was rebuilt by Hawksmoor between 1712 and 1714. The same dates apply, roughly, to all of these buildings. In 1710 the newly elected Tory government had announced a Commission for Building Fifty New Churches to cater for London's rapidly growing population.

Thomas Archer, John James, and James Gibbs were all handed work but Hawksmoor bested them all by being involved in 8 of the 12 that finally got built. Even then the Tories were full of shit although part of the reason the other 38 were never constructed was due to Hawksmoor's extravagant, and expensive, plans.

Other than the six below Hawksmoor was also involved, with John James, on St John Horsleydown in Bermondsey which suffered serious war damage and was completely destroyed a couple of decades later. John James, again, was the chief architect of St Luke Old Street but Hawksmoor added its most startling detail, the obelisk spire.

As apprentice to Christopher Wren Hawksmoor had worked with him on St Paul's Cathedral, Greenwich Hospital, and Hampton Court Palace. On going it alone Wren offered advice to the younger man which, on the most part it would appear, was roundly ignored. The other key figure in Hawksmoor's architectural life was Sir John Vanbrugh who managed to combine designing Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard with writing Restoration comedies like The Provoked Wife and The Relapse.

While Vanbrugh mostly worked on stately homes his contemporary Hawksmoor's most noted works are these churches. Which makes his reputation as Satan's architect all the more confusing. Was he a secret pagan? An actual devil worshipper? No accounts of the time suggest so.

In fact these stories only started to circulate after Iain Sinclair, in one of his early books Lud Heat, began to propose a theory that if you joined up the sites of all Hawksmoor's London churches, conveniently adding in other sites of historical interest like Cleopatra's Needle and the Bedlam mental hospital (now the Imperial War Museum), you get something not dissimilar to a pentagram.

An occult psychogeography was born and even though some of it didn't quite add up it was too much fun not to run with it. Hawksmoor's grandiose gothic surname didn't harm the case. Nor did the fact that in St.Anne's, Limehouse churchyard there lies this mysterious pyramid inscribed with the legend 'The Wisdom of Solomon'. It all adds to the intrigue.

On our walk we were unable to access St.Anne's but St George in the East (Stepney) proved much more accessible. Street drinkers were putting the staircase to good use and signs inside the building suggested it was much used, and loved, by the community. It's a survivor too. This area was bombed to smithereens in WWII but St George stood defiant. Owen showed us an old black and white photo of the rubble strewn East End with both St George and Hawksmoor's Christ Church in Spitalfields (more later) proudly nodding at each other across the bombsite.

In earlier days it had looked out on the Battle of Cable Street. An event which saw a clash between the Metropolitan Police, protecting a march by Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, and various Jewish, socialist, communist, and anarchist groups who were demonstrating against fascism. 44 years later the church appeared in The Long Good Friday.

It's not far to Christ Church in Spitalfields. Like the area it presides over it's been given a pretty good scrub in the last few decades. Some say it's almost too clean, too white even. They miss the grime and dirt and the stories etched into its walls. Either way it's a pretty handsome specimen. If you've ever been to Spitalfields Market or had a curry on Brick Lane you'll have seen it. Gilbert and George must see it every day as they live just round the corner.

The outlier, architecturally, is the hard-to-get-your-head around St Mary Woolnoth. Lying in the ward of Langbourn it's the only Hawksmoor church that sits within the ancient city walls. It looks more like a vast mausoleum and it's pretty hard to work out where the door is or how you get in. It's nice that the sign showing the entrance to Bank tube station has been designed in sympathetic style. I enjoy a juxtaposition but I'm also a fan of well worked out set piece.

The tube station was built about 150 years after the church and if you get the lifts down to, or up from, the Northern line you're directly below the crypt of the church. Years ago you could even enter into the church directly from the tube station. Sadly now the area smells a bit of piss as there's a convenient alley round the back for refreshed bankers to relieve themselves before heading up to Liverpool Street or across the Thames to London Bridge.

Along with St Alfege's the Hawksmoor church most seen by tourists is probably St George's in Bloomsbury. It looks magnificent at any time but best of all on a summer evening. There's a comedy museum and club in the crypt downstairs, where I saw an old Basingstoke friend Toby perform a jaw-droppingly hilarious routine earlier this year, and I've also visited to try my hand at shape singing. A discipline I did not excel at.

George I adorns the spire with a lion and unicorn at the base. Hardly your standard Christian iconography and even less so when you consider the beasts, instead of posing like on most statuary, are rendered as if in battle. If you get a chance to look at Hogarth's morality tale Gin Lane you'll notice the spire of the church in the background. It is, along with the pawnbrokers (natch), the only building not in a state of disrepair.

Although the Fortean presentation was a little shambolic and Owen erred towards the dry at times his talk was knowledgeable, informed, and full of interesting nuggets of information. Ripperology and psychogeography loomed large during the Q&A but we also heard about Leon Kossof's masterful depiction of Christ Church and the spires of St Mary Woolnoth making an appearance in T S Eliot's Wasteland.

We didn't hear much about Hawksmoor the man himself. Little is known of him. As if to further propagate the myth of godlessness he's now buried in a deconsecrated graveyeard in Shenley, Hertfordshire. His grave receives few visitors. The guy who lives in the converted church now claims far more come to see the plot of former Formula One world champion Graham Hill who shares the churchyard with him.

Perhaps this scant knowledge of the man himself was another factor in Iain Sinclair's wild speculations on his beliefs. Although it was Sinclair who kicked the ball into play it was Peter Ackroyd who ran with it. His novel Hawksmoor concerns a fictional 18th century architect, Nicholas Dyer, who builds 7 London churches whilst also telling of 1980s detective Nicholas Hawksmoor who investigates a series of murders that take place in these very churches. It upset some architecture critics of the time (1985) but won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Whitbread Novel Award and is now viewed as a highly influential postmodern novel. A term, it's been noted, Ackroyd himself doesn't care for.

Only a year after the publication of Ackroyd's Hawksmoor Alan Moore began his graphic novel series From Hell speculating on the motives and crimes of Jack the Ripper. In this series the mystical significance of Hawksmoor's churches, and our old friend Cleopatra's Needle, is further embellished when a fictional version of Sir William Gull, Queen Victoria's royal physician and a popular suspect for the Ripper murders, takes his coachman and confidant, Sir John Netley, on a tour of these landmarks where he expounds upon their esoteric values.

I don't think it's an insult to a great architect's memory to make up these wild and wonderful, and even sometimes believable, stories about him. We may know little about Hawksmoor but we do know, and can see very clearly, he was a man of remarkable imagination. It'd be nice to think that as a creator of the weird and wonderful he'd recognise in Sinclair, Ackroyd, and Moore kindred spirits and heirs to his throne.

I enjoyed the talk - and I enjoyed the walk. I might do it again one day.

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