In the conclusion to his very substantial study of England’s least known and most misunderstood Baroque architect, Owen Hopkins discusses some of the modern folklore that has developed around Nicholas Hawksmoor over the past 40 years, showing how swiftly a myth can capture the public imagination. The bulk of this unevenly written, fact-packed book is devoted to discussing Hawksmoor’s life and work. The last chapter considers the myths which recently gained him a large public and, ironically, brought him the critical recognition he failed to receive either in his own lifetime or for almost two centuries afterwards.
A yeoman farmer’s son, born in Nottinghamshire in 1661, Hawksmoor joined Wren’s office at the age of 18. Rapidly learning his craft, by 24 he was earning two shillings a day as Wren’s assistant. Reliable, modest and affable, he worked on St Paul’s, Blenheim Palace and most of our great Baroque architectural projects. Before long he was designing full-scale buildings of his own. Encouraged by the fashion of his day to indulge his own tastes, his expression is, even now, considered eccentric.
As well as with Wren, he also worked closely with their mutual friend Vanbrugh and was admired by both. His plans were enough to secure him major commissions, but he remained marginalised, primarily because, unlike his associates, he was not a gentleman. Yet he designed six major east London churches, including St Mary Woolnoth, St Anne’s Limehouse and Christ Church Spitalfields, as well as All Souls, Oxford, and the towers of Westminster Abbey. Castle Howard, which became associated in recent decades with screen versions of Brideshead Revisited, was designed by Vanbrugh and, after his death, completed chiefly by Hawksmoor.
On the cusp of the Enlightenment, London was still a rather second-rate plague-ridden medieval town.