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Nicholas Hawksmoor: a pioneer neo-Palladian?

  • Giles Worsley


Nicholas Hawksmoor is usually seen as the antithesis of the English neo-Palladians. The unprecedented originality of Christ Church, Spitalfields, and St George-in-the-East has little in common with the carefully derived compositions of Colen Campbell or Lord Burlington. Lord Shaftesbury, often seen as the harbinger of neo-Palladianism, condemned the sterility of Wren’s court-based architecture, much of which involved Hawksmoor, and, without mentioning its name, Blenheim Palace, designed by Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh in collaboration. Campbell’s neo-Palladian manifesto, the Introduction to Vitmvius Britannicus, attacked the ‘odd and chimerical Beauties’ of Borromini, and so by inference, it is assumed, Hawksmoor, the only English architect whose attitude to the Classical orders was as unrestrained as Borromini’s. Because of this, because Hawksmoor was dismissed from his main posts in the Office of Works by the neo-Palladians, and because Lord Burlington criticized his lack of architectural purity, the links between Hawksmoor and the neo-Palladians have never been given the detailed consideration they deserve.



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1 Sir John Summerson encapsulates the standard view of Hawksmoor and the neo-Palladians in his Architecture in Britain 1530–1830 (London, 1979), p. 317: ‘How and among whom this Palladian taste became formed it will be our business presently to inquire. The first point to note is that it had nothing to do with Wren, Vanbrugh, Hawksmoor, or Archer except in so far as, by excluding the works of these architects from salvation, it was better able to distinguish its own particular sort of grace.’ The only extensive examination of Hawksmoor and the neo-Palladians is in Professor Downes’s two volumes both entitled Hawksmoor (London, 1970, and London, 1979), and although this essay differs from them in interpretation it relies heavily on them for information. The two other major sources were John Harris and A. A. Tait, Catalogue of the Drawings by Inigo Jones, John Webb & Isaac de Caus at Worcester College Oxford (Oxford, 1979), and Colvin, H. M., Catalogue of Architectural Drawings of the 18th and 10th centuries in the Library of Worcester College (Oxford, 1964). I am also indebted to Howard Colvin’s Unbuilt Oxford (New Haven and London, 1983) which provided the initial inspiration for this essay.

2 Vanbrugh’s work would repay similar examination, particularly as he acquired the French edition of Palladio in 1703, perhaps the same book that he reported mislaying in 1711. The significance of Palladio in English architecture in the first decade of the eighteenth century is a broader subject to which this essay can only provide an introduction.

3 Wittkower, R., ‘Pseudo-Palladian Elements in English Neoclassicism’, Palladio and English Palladianistn (London, 1983).

4 Beard, G., The Work of Christopher Wren (Edinburgh, 1982), fig. 33.

5 In fact the more detailed illustration of the Palazzo Thiene in the Four Books shows that the upper opening was filled by a plaque, not a window.

6 Campbell must have come to London in late 1711 or early 1712, see Stutchbury, H., The Architecture of Colen Campbell (Manchester, 1967), p. 5.

7 A similar, though unquoted, contemporary use by Hawksmoor of Palladio’s palazzi to provide one element of a larger design can be found in the ground-floor windows of the entrance front at Blenheim, part of the building erected in 1705–06. These have no ordinary window frame but are set between baseless half pilasters under a heavy cornice separating ground and first floors, framed by a giant order. This unusual design is probably adapted from the street façade of the Palazzo Valmarana as illustrated in the Four Books. This also had half pilasters at ground level, a giant order, and a heavy cornice between ground and first floors. Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh replaced all the wall between the half pilasters by window and substituted for the baseless Tuscan pilasters that frame the window in the Palazzo Valmarana Corinthian half pilasters.

The same motif, of a giant order on a high base framing a half pilaster supporting a heavy cornice and flanking a void, forms the basis of the central tower of the entrance front of Hawksmoor’s Queen’s College Proposition IV, although there the cornice is given a full Doric order, and the Palazzo Valmarana motif is reduced to a single bay.

8 The importance of Serlio to English architecture in these years, and in particular to the work of Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, should not be overlooked. This is particularly relevant in the use of the Venetian window. Serlio makes much greater use of the Venetian window in more complex combinations than Palladio or Scamozzi. For instance, Vanbrugh’s use of Venetian windows in the turrets at Seaton Delaval is clearly derived from the fourteenth chapter of Serlio’s fifth book, and Hawksmoor’s use of a Venetian window motif for the portico at Christ Church, Spitalfields, owes more to Serlio than to Palladio.

9 Survey of London, xxvn (London, 1957), pp. 153–56 and figs.

10 Three sets of designs for Greenwich survive, labelled for convenience by Professor Downes the ‘first’, ‘second’ and ‘third’ designs. Only the ‘third’ design is dated, 1711, and it is unclear whether the other two are contemporary. References to Queen Anne show they cannot predate 1702, and they must have been made within a couple of years of the Queen’s College designs: (Downes (1979), pp. 83–95 and figs).

11 Downes (1970), fig. 51.

12 At the east end of St Bride’s and on the Dean’s door at St Paul’s. The latter was probably based on Inigo Jones’s north and south nave doors for St Paul’s which occupied similar positions to the Dean’s door. It has also been suggested that he used shell overdoors from the Palazzo Chiericati in the pre-Fire design for St Paul’s. Although Wren made some use of individual motifs from Jones and Palladio, in general his work is marked by a remarkable lack of reference to Palladio.

13 Ibid., fig. 123.

14 Colvin, H. M., Biographical Dictionary of British Architects (London, 1978), p. 470.

15 Professor Downes sees the hand of Talman ( Downes, K., Wren (London, 1971), p. 102 ), but they are now generally attributed to Wren ( Colvin, H. M., History of the King’s Works, v (London, 1976), p. 299 . If the drawing were by Talman this would raise the interesting question of whether he already possessed the Palladio drawing, but as the designs would still have been made in the Office of Works Hawksmoor would have been aware of the source.

16 ‘Sir Christopher Wren’, Catalogue of the 1982 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery (London, 1982), iv.31.

17 Professor Downes suggests that the source for the High Street façade is Palladio’s elevation of a Roman house in Barbaro’s edition of Vitruvius (Downes (1979), p. 153).

18 Vitruvius, Ten Books of Architecture, 1, vi, 4.

19 Downes (1979), pp. 149–51.

20 It is unclear when Dr Clarke acquired the Webb drawings but he used them as the source for one of his All Souls designs of about 1707.

21 Downes (1979), p. 244.

22 Colvin (1983), p. 85.

23 The original 1714 designs for Christ Church, Spitalfields, also had a Diocletian window over a Venetian window, but in the execution the mullions were omitted so that the upper window is not a Diocletian window.


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