Hawksmoor at the Royal Academy: bunkum and brilliance

As the adverts all over the tube let us know, there’s currently a big David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. Less well advertised, but far more compelling from a London point of view, is the same gallery’s fine show on the fascinating architecture of Nicholas Hawskmoor.

This takes place in the Architecture Space – a nice name for a small corridor near the restaurant – and features a short introduction to the architect, alongside photographs and paintings (photographed, not originals) of key works that feature or reference Hawksmoor’s work.

Leon Kossoff's Christchurch, Spitalfields

Hawksmoor, who specialised in hefty Baroque churches, is not an architect to everybody’s taste. In 1734, James Ralph argued that Christchurch was ‘beyond question, one of the most absurd piles in Europe’.  His reputation was resuscitated by Kerry Downes in 1959, who insisted of his churches that ‘they will repel us or fascinate us, but we cannot escape from their strange, haunting power’. This has been a mantra repeated by writers in the following years.

I actually find it quite easy to escape their powers, strange, haunting or otherwise, but this supposed mysterious attraction of Hawksmoor churches is now almost impossible to ignore or deny. It has been repeated so many times, it’s become fact, as Hawksmoor became the anointed architect for a certain type of London writer, the Peter Cook to Sir Christopher Wren’s Dudley Moore. I admire Hawksmoor’s churches, but don’t see them as particularly profound or unsettling.

Charles Hardaker's Hawksmoor Baroque, St Mary Woolnoth, London

Among the first to take up this theme was Iain Sinclair who wrote about Hawksmoor in King Lud (1975). A quote from the book is reproduced on the wall, and it offers a perfect illustration of what I dislike about the psychogeographic way of seeing London: ‘From what is known of Hawksmoor it is possible to imagine he did work a code into the buildings, knowingly or unknowingly, templates of meaning, bands of continuous ritual.’

‘From what is known’; ‘possible to imagine’; ‘knowing or unknowing’. Make it up as you go along, in other words. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I do resent the way it is elevated above all other forms of London writing.

Sinclair has made a career out it, and he does it so well you could almost believe he takes it seriously. A fascinating map drawn by him features in the exhibition, showing his hand-drawn connections between London buildings, and there’s also a great film in which he talks eloquently about his relationship with Hawksmoor, which began when he was a gardener employed by Tower Hamlets to mow the churchyard grass at St Anne, Limehouse. Sinclair is a wonderful speaker, and spins a fine yarn here.

Sinclair's map for King Lud

After Sinclair came Ackroyd and Alan Moore, both of whom woves tales of occultish imagination around this indefinable mystery of Hawksmoor churches. Nonsense clearly, but at least it gave us the majestic From Hell, which features prominently in the exhibition.

From Hell featuring Christchurch, Spitalfields

All this bunkum gets space in the exhibition, but I found much else to entertain besides. There are wonderful photographs and prints of Hawksmoor buildings in many different styles and from varied eras, and also a passionate film by Ptolmy Dean, explaining – quite successfully – the attractions of the easily overlooked St Mary Woolnoth near the Bank of England.

The most interesting element, however, were the photos that drew attention to the parallels between Hawksmoor’s work and more recent buildings. We see a comparison of St Mary Woolnoth and Poultry in the City, and another between St Anne, Limehouse and the National Theatre. It might not be as sexy as psychogeography, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of straightforward architectural history every now and then.

paul_0133fw.jpg

Celia Paul's St George, Bloomsbury

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5 responses to “Hawksmoor at the Royal Academy: bunkum and brilliance

  1. Took your advice and went to both the punks and this today … agree with all the above … thought the Celia Paul painting was excellent.

  2. Agree wholeheartedly re psychogeography. I mean REALLY. Something that should just be about having a kind of personal, localised cosmology has become ridiculously overblown and overintellectualised. There’s also something relentlessly male about the way it’s developed, and about the significance it accords itself. Why is this?

  3. Douglas Hayward

    Nice dissection of the psychogeographic brigade – their stuff is very entertaining, but ultimately it’s just … entertainment!

  4. Jean Fulcanelli

    I doubt they spent billions of pounds in today’s money to purely “entertain” people (with something they couldn’t understand). Rather the buildings were built in geomantic fashion, which was very common at that time. We all know that most significant buildings in China are built to Feng Shui code, which is no secret to the Chinese or westerners. Why are our old designs dismissed as “fanciful entertainment” from the “psychogeographic brigade” when Feng Shui is now taken so seriously by all ?

  5. Pingback: New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway? | The Great Wen

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