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Fine Art Reviews


Fine Art Reviews

Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination

Location: Royal Academy of Arts, London
Event Date: June 2012
Review Date: 15th June 2012
Reviewed By: David Frazer Lewis, University of Oxford
Review Citation: David Frazer Lewis, review of Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination
URL: http://www.bsecs.org.uk/reviews/reviewdetails.aspx?id=33&type=2
Date Accessed: 2nd August 2014
Review:

Hawksmoor is a perennially popular figure amongst architects. Although his reputation was eroded by the tide of Palladianism after his death, his star rose again, in tandem with Soane’s, in the early twentieth century. It is this popularity with artists and architects that the exhibition at the Royal Academy addresses, bringing together some of the literary, artistic, and architectural products of the twentieth-century fascination with this intriguing architect. As the exhibition’s subtitle, Architect of the Imagination, suggests, the displays emphasize the enigmatic and creative elements of Hawksmoor’s designs. As such, the exhibition does little to address new scholarly interpretations of Hawksmoor’s work. Instead, it provides a poignant testimonial to the architect’s continued relevance by tracing his influence on modern culture. It is thus a rare thing in architectural history – the exploration of the ‘afterlife’ of buildings.

The exhibition itself is small. Located in the corridor leading to the café, it consists of two large boards with texts and images. These contain quotations about Hawksmoor from various men and women of letters along with images of their relevant productions. There is a single painting of Christ Church Spitalfields, created by Anthony Eyton in 1969 and lent by the artist, as well as three video screens with headphones, showing film interviews with Phillip Pullman, Ptolemy Dean, and Iain Sinclair. The views of contemporary celebrities may at first seem irrelevant, but they all reflect in some degree a common respect for Hawksmoor’s work. The choice of visual works may sometimes also seem incidental, with Hugh Casson’s guide to Oxford open to a watercolour of All Souls or a woodcut of the Oxford skyline from Pullman’s book Lyra’s Oxford hardly reflecting a particular reverence for Hawksmoor.. However, they are all loosely tied together by the theme – and that is the point – the exhibition is not intended as a taut historical argument, but a gathering of tributes to Hawksmoor’s continuing presence in the artistic imagination. The videos are lyrical, with their hymn-like piano music and telephoto pans over Hawksmoor’s buildings. Pullman calls Hawksmoor’s Oxford buildings ‘little bits of fantasy, suddenly appearing in stone’, and Iain Sinclair says the London churches are ‘like cave drawings – unbelievably eternal’. Dean, an architect, examines St Mary, Woolnoth, in more architectural terms, commenting on Hawksmoor’s surprising ways of using of space and light and his response to the urban context of London by designing the church to be seen from the oblique angles of the surrounding alleys.

The exhibition focuses primarily on the London churches, linking them to London lore from Jack the Ripper to the Blitz. Despite the small corner devoted to Oxford, it is primarily an exhibition about the role of Hawksmoor’s works in the fabric of London. There is also a focus on the psychological effect of his works, suggesting in their strangeness links to dream architecture and the subconscious.

The exhibition is accompanied by very good additional material on the Royal Academy’s website, including an audio recording of a panel discussion with Ptolemy Dean, Iain Sinclair, Elizabeth McKellar and the curator, Owen Hopkins, interesting for its deeper analysis of Hawksmoor’s London churches in their context. There is also a link to an article by Royal Academician Richard MacCormac tying his admiration for Hawksmoor to his design of the attractive new Kendrew Quadrangle at St John’s College, Oxford.

Overall, the most striking thing about the exhibition is the wide range of artists who have made Hawksmoor their own. Denys Lasdun, architect of the National Theatre, is quoted admiring the way Hawksmoor 'metabolised' Gothic and Classical architecture. Robert Venturi and James Stirling admire his disregard for rules. There are quotations from authors ranging from Charles Dickens to graphic novelists Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. There are visual works by John Piper and Bill Brandt. That this eccentric seventeenth-century architect should have such a hold on our imaginations is attributed by the exhibition largely to Peter Ackroyd’s eponymous novel. However, the wide range of the display makes clear that the roots are deeper and broader than that. As the designer of some of the greatest landmarks in London and Oxford, Hawksmoor’s influence is wide-felt and his ascendancy will continue as long as these mysterious monuments continue to brood over their respective cities. The exhibition is a satisfying and heartfelt tribute to the enduring legacy of this great architect.

'Nicholas Hawksmoor: Architect of the Imagination' is at the Royal Academy, London, from 4 February to 17 June 2012.

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