A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor (1985) doesn’t really need another review, having been around and acclaimed for 30 years. This is more of a personal reflection on reading the book for the first time after visiting Hawksmoor’s famous six London churches and reflecting on the uniqueness that marks out his architecture and attracts speculation about his beliefs.
A lot of Hawksmoor’s work is hiding in plain sight, done in collaboration with the likes of Wren (whose protégé he was from his teens) and Vanburgh. Vanburgh the gentleman polymath put his name to Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, Wren to Greenwich Hospital and many royal palaces such as Hampton Court and Kensington Palace; Hawksmoor worked with both men, who recognised his genius, but it has taken recent research to pin down his contribution. Hawksmoor’s origins were humble and provincial, and his place in the forefront of public works was not always secure; class may well have come into it, I feel. Rehabilitation work in the 20th century by Kerry Downes among others has restored knowledge of which work belongs to Hawksmoor (I had no idea until recently that the extraordinary west front of Westminster Abbey was his, for instance). But his undisputed work has always impressed the onlooker as out of the ordinary, even disconcerting.
Hawksmoor’s current fame (helped by his literary revival by Ackroyd and before him Iain Sinclair) rests on his six London churches, built between 1712 and the early 1730s in response to a 1711 Act to build 50 churches surrounding London to accommodate its expanding population. In the event only 12 were built, of which six were attributed solely to Hawksmoor and two more to which he contributed typically strange towers. The expense turned out to be far greater than estimated, and enthusiasm waned after more than 20 years attempting to get them built, so the commission for the building was wound up in 1733, shortly before Hawksmoor’s death in 1736. I took a guided tour of all six of them (plus one of the 12 not by him) and I ended the day both impressed and oppressed. There is something monumental and weighty about his buildings, and they seem to loom over one. After the exquisite, tiny city churches of Wren, they feel gigantic and almost out of human scale. The bonus church, St Paul’s Deptford (by Archer) felt light, airy, almost joyful in comparison.
Hawksmoor was a deep student of ancient architecture that went beyond the Greek and Roman. He also was interested in the nascent Freemasonry of the time (there is evidence that late in life he was a member of a lodge) and shared its obsession with Solomon’s Temple and its reconstruction from the evidence in scriptures. But just how far into the esoteric did Hawksmoor’s studies and personal beliefs extend? Something about his church architecture and its symbolism invites speculation about this, on a spectrum from the mildly curious to the wildly imaginative.
London’s own psychogeographer Iain Sinclair in Lud Heat (1975) raised the idea that the churches themselves contained occult messages, and their arrangement on the map of London formed geometric patterns with esoteric meaning. (I have not read this book – yet – but it’s high on my list). Peter Ackroyd, inspired by this idea, poured it into Hawksmoor the novel. I had been meaning to read it for most of the 30 years it has been published, but it took this slightly unsettling tour of the six churches to make me do it at last. (I also have certain Bookfoxes to thank for leading me into the paths of reading for the pleasure of getting the Grues, something for which I now have a certain taste).
Ackroyd as we know is the arch-chronicler of London, its biographer and the discoverer of its heroes and anti-heroes. He knows it so well – he knows it century by century, and can take us on a journey through 16th, 17th, 18th, 21st century London streets and stews. I’m learning my way around too, and coming to love the city from its pavements. Hawksmoor’s churches provide some frisson as I walk around – I always find the sight of Christchurch Spitalfields at the end of Brushfield Street off Bishopsgate a shock. It is enormous, and its west facade is almost brutal. It looks like a space rocket awaiting lift-off at Star City. St Mary Woolnoth in the city is a stark cubic building with a weird sort of pylon of two stubby towers at its west end. St George’s-in-the-East, Wapping, and St Anne’s Limehouse look like antique Pharos from the river.
Ackroyd takes Sinclair’s speculation that these churches have an esoteric plan outwith the Christian religion, extends it and weaves it into an utterly original, deep, time-travelling mystery. He spares Hawksmoor the historic figure by creating Nicholas Dyer, straddling the 17th and 18th centuries, the architect of seven churches – six real and one mythical – who shares with the real Hawksmoor just his profession and his subordinate relationship to Wren and to Vanburgh. His family history and dates are different, and it is Dyer, not Hawksmoor, who belongs in secret to a devil-worshipping syncretic religious sect, led by one Mirabilis. He inhabits a terrifying, dangerous, disease-ridden city, guarding his secret life as best he can, and trailing death behind him as he designs and builds his churches around a clandestine system of ancient symbols, beliefs and rituals that he hides from his rational-thinking superiors Wren and Vanburgh.
Hawksmoor’s namesake in the novel is a 20th century murder squad DCI, faced with a series of insoluble murders, devoid of clues, that reach back to Dyer’s time and are linked by his churches. DCI Hawksmoor inhabits the same fringes of London as Dyer, and their accustomed trails and habitations from Spitalfields to Limehouse to the City to Seven Dials overlap. The supernatural element is pervasive, but nothing so crude as time slip or ghosts or apparitions – just an uneasy sense that Dyer’s London and his occult preoccupations are not erased by time, and that the 20th century mayhem in fact emanates from 250 years earlier. Hawksmoor is granted no insight from beyond the grave, and his mental health deteriorates in the face of this intractable mystery until there is a final integration of their worlds.
The novel’s chapters are shared between Dyer’s 18th century voice, and Hawksmoor’s story, told by a third person narrator. Archaic language in novels can be problematic, but Ackroyd is in complete control and it did not grate on me. Even so I found it good to have the respite of Part 2 and the modern detective strand as Dyer’s voice can be just too oppressive and terrifying at a stretch. His London is the city that those of us (I include myself) who are fascinated by the period would rather not think about – the London of Gin Lane, which has the utterly weird stepped pyramid of the spire of Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury in the background. It is terrifying in its dangers and cruelty and noxious streets.
I do not need to tell you that this is a very fine novel. That was established long ago. Its sense of the supernatural gradually tightens its grip throughout. It plays with the idea that these churches are timeless temples, reaching back beyond Christianity into some sort of infernal ur-religion, while managing not to traduce Hawksmoor’s memory entirely (‘a tender husband, a loving father, a sincere friend, and a most agreeable companion’, his obituary said). But if you want to find out about Hawksmoor and his work and world, neither it, nor Lud Heat are textbooks. For that, read Nicholas Hawksmoor by Vaughan Hart, or Kerry Downes’s revivisionist monograph if you can get hold of it.
However, according to the guide on our architectural tour, that point is lost on many people on the Hawksmoor trail. They are there to find the traces of the occult in the buildings, and purport to be convinced by the made-up religion of the novel. The churches rather defy that these days – most are very white and gold and sparkly, whereas when the novel was written they were pretty well all in dire straits. Christ Church Spitalfields was almost derelict, about to be declared unsafe, and within weeks of a decision to take its roof off in the 60s. St George’s Bloomsbury was blackened and neglected, and had lost the mythical animals that writhed round the base of the spire (they are back now). To see them both now it is hard to believe how close we came to losing them. Both were saved by massive efforts by Friends groups, and by huge philanthropy. Let’s hope that a nice injection of cash from starring in Call The Midwife can do something similar for St Anne’s Limehouse. Meanwhile, it would be good to think that people going to see his masterpieces go to honour Hawksmoor’s memory and marvel at his skill and genius, and not go looking for blood on their stones.
Peter Ackroyd: Hawksmoor. London: Penguin Books, 2010. 288pp
First published 1985.