Sacred Mysteries: Hawksmoor’s magnificent six

The Lion and the Unicorn carved by Tim Crawley in 2005 on the steeple of St George Bloomsbury to replace the originals taken down in 1871
The Lion and the Unicorn carved by Tim Crawley in 2005 on the steeple of St George Bloomsbury to replace the originals taken down in 1871 - PjrTravel / Alamy

A bonus in David Meara’s new book Terror and Magnificence, on Hawsksmoor’s London churches, is a picture of St John Horsleydown. Most people have never heard of it. But it stood on the other side of the Thames from the Tower of London, just south of today’s Bridge Theatre.

St John’s had a “silly but lovable spire”, as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner put it, in the form of a tapering column, with a comet as a weather vane.

The church was bombed in 1942, but worship there continued. The spire survived and a scheme for rebuilding the damage was approved. Through some kind of loss of nerve, or desire to do something else worthwhile with the site, the church, finished in 1733 by Nicholas Hawksmoor in collaboration with John James, was demolished. There being no such thing as collective memory, it is quite unfamiliar today.

It was a close-run thing with other London churches by Hawksmoor too. Terror and Magnificence is a very readable 96-page introduction (with splendid photographs by Stuart Vallis) to the six that remain.

Of those, St Alfege Greenwich (1714) was firebombed in 1941 and restored; St Anne’s Limehouse (1730) suffered a fire in 1850 and was rebuilt; St Mary Woolnoth (1727) had its interior reconstructed by William Butterfield in 1875; and St George-in-the-East (1729) was bombed in 1941 and a 1960s church built inside its shell, round which surviving old buildings were needlessly demolished and replaced with ugly flats.

St George Bloomsbury (1731) has been splendidly restored – with the galleries demolished  in 1871 put back and the orientation returned to the direction intended. Even the exterior, with its now bright stone, looks extraordinary from the top of a 38 bus, with a portico like the Pantheon’s and a steeple like the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, up which the Lion and the Unicorn scurry in Tim Crawley’s admired replacement in 2005 of the originals removed in 1871. At the top, instead of its patron saint, stands King George I in a toga.

David Meara quotes contemporary verses (were they by Horace Walpole?):

When Henry the Eighth left the Pope in the lurch

The Protestants made him the head of the Church; 

But George’s good subjects, the Bloomsbury people

Instead of the Church made him head of the steeple.

Christ Church Spitalfields (1729) has seen a sort of resurrection from closure and near dereliction in 1957, at a time when the surrounding houses, so expensive today, were neglected warehouses. I spent a very enjoyable funeral there, seeing and hearing its theatrical glories from the gallery at the west end.

So what are we to make of Hawksmoor? The author, the retired Archdeacon of London, takes the title for his book from a remark by a fictional character in Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor (1985). Ackroyd liked to imagine devil-worship, but it is true that John Vanbrugh, an early advocate of Hawksmoor’s talent, declared that churches should be of “Solemn and Awfull Appearance”. Something of Vanbrugh’s monumentality was taken over by Hawksmoor, but it was not the cold classicism of Palladio.

Hawksmoor also kept alive the Gothic tradition of England. His last great achievement was to supply the western towers of Westminster Abbey. He had spent years promoting the repair of Beverley Minster and brought elements of its lovely Gothic towers to the Abbey, imparting to it something of awe, but surely not terror.