Hawksmoor and the city.

Christchurch and Spitalfields Market, 1990

Christ Church Spitalfields from Brushfield St., 1990. (This and all photos on this page © David Secombe.)

Owen Hopkins:

Ever since they began to rise over London just over 300 years ago, the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor (1662–1736) have had an ambiguous – even paradoxical – relationship to the city that made them and which they have in turn remade. On the one hand, the churches of St Anne, Limehouse, Christ Church, Spitalfields and St George-in-the-East in the old parish of Stepney, St. Alfege in Greenwich, St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London and St George, Bloomsbury are inextricably bound up with the history of London. On the other, they stand apart, somehow belonging to a rather different time and place, almost as fragments of Ancient Rome transplanted into London.

St Alfege Greenwich, London, 1988.St Alfege, Greenwich, 1988.

To understand Hawksmoor’s churches and their relationship to the city, one has to go back to the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1666. Even as the fire still smouldered, Hawksmoor’s later master, Christopher Wren, was working up a plan for London’s rebuilding that would replace its narrow and irregular medieval streets with grand boulevards. Most importantly, and taking direct inspiration from what he had learned in Paris the year before, Wren’s plan would have imposed a clear spatial order and control on the dangerous and unruly metropolis.

Hawksmoor’s approach to city planning was different. Hawksmoor never created a plan for London in the way his master had done, but he did produce (unbuilt) designs for re-planning Oxford and Cambridge, and parts of London around St Paul’s Cathedral, Greenwich, and Westminster. The easiest way to understand how these would have worked is to look to contemporary landscape gardens: manufactured landscapes littered with classically-inspired temples and follies, structures that dominate the vistas and embody the estate owner’s authority.

St George in the East, Wapping, 2010St George-in-the-East, Wapping, 2010.

Similarly, in Hawksmoor’s idea of the city, spatial order and control extended not from the street layout, but from monumental buildings that would physically dominate their surroundings. In all Hawksmoor city plans we see a recurring strategy of clearing the areas around important buildings – both old and new – so that they might express their spatial dominion over the surrounding cityscape. What happened in between was of far less importance. It’s hard to imagine the effect of these unbuilt plans when described in the abstract, but to see their principles in action we only need look as far as Hawksmoor’s churches.

St. Luke's Old St., London; photo taken in 1988, before its restSt Luke’s Old St. (Hawksmoor & John James), photographed before its 21st century restoration, 1988.

Even now, the areas around Hawksmoor’s three churches in the old parish of Stepney still retain the ‘edge-lands’ feel they must have had when they first grew up in the decades following the Great Fire. Today that energy is manifested in the clash of different cultures and economies as the City of London encroaches on East End communities. In the early eighteenth century the energy arose through the rise of dissenting religious groups, outside the orbit of central Anglican control, with all the social and political ramifications that that held. As a result, Hawksmoor’s churches were conceived from the off as outlying beacons of the city’s spiritual and political centre – monuments of state and Church authority in areas that had none.

Bank tube & St Mary Woolnoth, 1988Entrance to Bank tube station showing part of the crypt of St Mary Woolnoth, City of London, 1988.

All three of Hawksmoor’s Stepney churches are colossal structures, deliberately sited to be seen in the round, that dominate their environment by sheer scale. Not surprisingly, their overbearing size has played a part in their subsequent neglect. In a 1975 letter to The Times, the then Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddlestone, was at great pains ‘to make it clear that the state of disrepair of Christchurch, Spitalfields is in no sense due to the failure of the local Christian community, nor, in my opinion, to neglect by the authorities of the Church of England’. Such a building of ‘cathedral-like proportions’ was, he argued, an ‘appalling responsibility for the Church’.

In addition to their size, Hawksmoor was able to make his churches stand out by his choice of material: white Portland stone, as opposed to the red brick of the surrounding city. Hawksmoor’s churches appear as if fully formed from a single gigantic block of stone. There’s the sense that this is the form the stone wants to be – a testament to their design, the final and most enduring aspect of their differentiation from the surrounding city.

St. Anne's LimehouseSt Anne’s Limehouse, 2010.

Having risen up through Wren’s office in the 1680s and 90s, by the beginning of the eighteenth century Hawksmoor was arguably the best-trained architect Britain had ever seen. Classical architecture was his intellectual and aesthetic bedrock, but he was also fascinated by Gothic architecture and in particular its origins – as he saw them – in the churches of the early Christians of the near east. Hawksmoor’s genius was to bring all this learning to bear in creating a series of church designs rich in reference, resonance and allusion. The result was a series of buildings in which architecture was taken back to its very origins, with ideas and references built up in complex layers of masonry, imbuing these structures with the authority of the architectural past. This is architecture conceived through a sculptural sensibility to create buildings that speak to us but indirectly: through our senses and our emotions.

St George Bloomsbury, London, 2016St George Bloomsbury, 2016.

There are few buildings in London that look back to the past while at the same time prefigure the future. While part of London’s history, Hawksmoor’s churches exist in the future too, yielding ever more secrets as the city changes around them.

… for The London Column. Owen Hopkins’s book From The Shadows: The Architecture and Afterlife of Nicholas Hawksmoor is published by Reaktion Books.

© Owen Hopkins. All photos © David Secombe.

See also: Bluegate Fields, The London Nobody Knows, Spitalfields market.

Ten Old Men.

pensioner©DavidSecombeWoolwich. © David Secombe 1998.


190ae65e9dc5ace132d2c4282ae14b7eKing’s Cross. © Tim Marshall 2013.


Bowls©DavidSecombeFinsbury Circus. © David Secombe 1998.


8402dc4edc75ba1455d8ef46a0200b8038 bus. © Tim Marshall 2012.


ClaphamClapham Common. © David Secombe 1998.


d8234a761aef02bde0bd005b43ae2f2038 bus. © Tim Marshall 2011.


Tramp-fire1Spitalfields Market. © David Secombe 1990.


98f40c41bb9b0953260eae26302ab291King’s Cross. © Tim Marshall 2013.


7a6072a8b39c09733ad2e5f60e7222beKing’s Cross. © Tim Marshall 2013.


Victoria Way, Charlton, London, 1998Charlton. © David Secombe 1997.


See also: 38 Special, King’s Cross Stories, Underground, OvergroundDeep South London, Spitalfields Market, Park Life, Ten Imperatives.


East Ender.

redwall_(c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne.

Joseph Markovitch:

I was born right by Old Street roundabout on January 1st, 1927. Some of the kids used to beat me up – but in a friendly way. Hoxton was full of characters in those days. The Mayor was called Mr. Brooks and he was also a chimney sweep. Guess what? Before the coronation, he was putting up decorations and he fell off a ladder and got killed. Well, it happens. Then there was a six-foot tall girl, she was really massive. She used to attack people and put them in police vans. Maria was her name. Then there was Brotsky who used to kill chickens with a long stick. His son’s name was Monty. That’s not a common one is it? ‘Monty Brotsky’.

cafe (c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne

I worked two years as a cabinet maker in Hemsworth Street just off Hoxton market. But when my sinuses got bad I went to Hackney Road putting rivets on luggage cases. For about twenty years I did that job. My foreman was a bastard. Apart from that it was OK. But if I was clever, very clever, then I would have liked to be an accountant. It’s a very good job. And if I was less heavy … you know what I’d like to be? I’d like to be a ballet dancer. That would be my dream.

Joseph (c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne

I don’t mind people taking pictures of me. But I wouldn’t let a girl take a picture of me. She might have a boyfriend. I don’t want any trouble. And who knows, he might think she wants to run off with me. You got to be careful where you go nowadays. Martin, if you want to take this picture you had better be quick. I don’t take a good picture when my bladder is full.

exciting (c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne

If I try, I can imagine the future. It’s like watching a film. Pavements will move, nurses will be robots and cars will get smaller and grow wings … you’ve just got to wait. They will make photographs that talk. You will look at a picture of me and you will hear me say: ‘Hello I’m Jospeph Markovitch’ and then it will be me telling you abut things. Imagine that! I also have an idea that in about fifty years Hoxton Square will have a new market with an amazing plastic rain cover. So if it rains the potatoes won’t get wet. I don’t know what else they will sell. Maybe bowler hats. Nothing much changes round here in the end.

Joseph M (c) Martin Usborne

© Martin Usborne.

There’s no point crying about things is there? People don’t see you when you’re sad. Best just to keep walking.

Do you know that I can’t eat lettuce? I’ve got no teeth, not for ten years. It’s hard to like lettuce if you haven’t got teeth.

… taken from I’ve Lived In East London for 86.5 Years, photographs by Martin Usborne, the debut publication of Hoxton Mini Press. More details may be found on their Kickstarter page.

Old couple facing eviction. Photo: Dave Hendley, text: David Secombe.

© Dave Hendley 1973.

Overheard pub conversation:

Everyone’s got an uncle Bill. And everyone’s got just one picture of him. Uncle Bill died before you were born. The photo is your mum’s, taken on a trip to Hayling Island when she was a girl. And she shows you this photo, a tear at the corner of her eye, ‘That’s your Uncle Bill’ she says. And she hands you a tiny black and white picture of a man in a suit standing in the middle of a field. That’s your Uncle Bill. Well, it was my Uncle Bill. Who was called Norman. Your Uncle Bill was probably called Cliff. Or Lance.

In the final of the series of Dave Hendley’s rediscovered 1970s photos, this image shows an elderly couple outside their house in Fulham; they were facing eviction from their home after living there for decades. That is as much as I can tell you about the facts of the picture; Dave doesn’t know what became of them or the house itself (if it wasn’t flattened for redevelopment, it is probably now one of those candy-coloured terraced houses that go for over a million pounds). I’d like to know the full story, but perhaps it’s as well I don’t. I imagine the outcome was shabby and depressing: the early 1970s was not a glorious era for social housing in London.

Dave’s photographs this week are fragments of a lost career, and these pictures only exist because he left some old prints at his mother’s house. I don’t know why Dave felt compelled to chuck his old negatives, but he was young when he did it and perhaps didn’t reckon on their value as a permanent record. Now that almost all photographs exist as pixellated images that never get preserved as hard copy, it is sobering to consider the implications for the future. Dave ditched his negatives and got old enough to regret it, but fine prints were (accidentally) preserved. Today’s toy-like cameras make images that are no more durable than an ice sculpture. Photography is becoming utterly ephemeral: you aren’t creating a graven image, you are generating a string of code. Then, a bit later, maybe you get short of space on a memory card so you ditch a few images you don’t think you’ll need, or you forget to back them up, or the hard drive they were on went down … you won’t recover those pictures in anyone’s attic, they are gone. The future is bright and shiny and cares not for the past. Even those of us still using film wince at the price of ‘traditional’ materials: posterity carries a premium. What did Uncle Bill look like again?

In St. James’s Park. Photo: Dave Hendley, text: David Secombe.

St. James’s Park. © Dave Hendley 1973.

Photography is concerned with appearance rather than truth, and occasionally, one comes across a photograph so mysterious that one is stumped for any sort of comment. One thinks of the Andre Kertesz photo of a shadow behind glass on a balcony in Martinique; of Robert Frank’s picture of a girl running past a hearse and a street sweeper on a drab London street; or Elliott Erwitt’s shot of tourists in a Mexican charnel house, all acknowledged masterpieces. I think the above photo by Dave Hendley has a similar power. Dave offers no insight: he shot it quickly with his Leica as he walked past the men, then moved along before they had time to register that he had taken their photo (‘I was more ruthless back then, I don’t stick my camera in people’s faces any more’.) But it invites speculation, so I am going to offer mine.

There are few clues in Dave’s photo as to the exact period, but somehow we know it belongs to the past: in fact, it is the early 1970s – but it evokes a time slightly earlier than that.  I am reminded of the ‘black and white’ 1960s, the lost era of Victim, Pinter’s The Servant, and, especially, Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mister Sloane: a world of furtive encounters afforded a desperately genteel gloss (“the air round Twickenham was like wine”). But I don’t know whether my interpretation is correct and it probably isn’t. More than one photographer has got into trouble because a photo suggested something about its subjects that was misleading or even libellous. Whatever the reality, the picture is simultaneously comic, poignant and slightly disturbing. The sharply assessing gaze of the man on the left is unnerving enough, but I find myself worried by the man on the right, his too-tight tie and his inscrutable smile somehow just wrong. (I am also reminded of this painting.)

As with the photo we ran yesterday, this photograph is a precious survivor of a cull of Dave’s early work which the photographer carried out with youthful ruthlessness. That was many years ago and, needless to say, Dave now regrets this; fortunately, this image survived as a print which Dave recently discovered in his mum’s attic.

… for The London Column.

See also: Welcoming Smiles, Robert Graves.

Up My Street. Photo: Dylan Collard (4/5)

The Security Shop, Junction Rd., Archway. © Dylan Collard.

Dylan Collard:

The Security Shop is, as you would expect, a local locksmiths and one that only opens when the owner fancies opening up.  He doesn’t really open in the winter because it’s too cold just to sit in the store …  The store is opposite the Wedding Shop and the Blue Carbuncle both of which feature in the series, but that have now both been forced to close.  Unlike the other shopkeepers on the road, the owner here is hoping for the arrival of a Tesco’s as it will bring in more customers.

Up My Street is Dylan Collard‘s project documenting shops between Kentish Town and Archway. His exhibition The Twelfth Man is currently showing at Exposure Gallery, 22-23 Little Portland Street, London W1. Dylan is represented by the Vue agency. 

Up My Street. Photo: Dylan Collard (2/5)

Laurence Evans, Second Chance, Archway Roundabout. © Dylan Collard.

From Born and Bred – Stories of Holloway Road:

Laurence Evans was born in Whittington Hospital in 1952. He lived first in Poynings Road and then moved to Caledonian Road where he has lived since 1962. He has volunteered at Second Chance charity shop at 7-9 St John’s Way, in the middle of Archway roundabout, since 2008.

“We’ve got a couple of customers, like a lady called Jenny who comes in and has a cup of tea or coffee and a couple of biscuits, she comes maybe three times a week and there’s a couple of other people who just come in for a cup of tea and they just like the atmosphere and the service.”

“Barry [the manager] and one of our volunteers Basil, they do all of the window displays and a lot of people have commented that the windows are very nice, and ask ‘do you have a professional come in?’ and no it’s just done by volunteers who have a knack for doing window displays. I don’t think I could do that. After Christmas we just did a purely black and white window and people commented that it was a very nice difference. A lot of people say ‘Oh I like that in the window, is it for sale? We don’t want to disturb your window display’ and I say ‘No, everything in the window is for sale’. So you have to take it out of the window and sell it to the customer and then try and find something to replace it.”

The above interview is taken from Born and Bred, an oral history project by Rowan Arts documenting the life of the Holloway Road. You can hear more at www.storiesofhollowayroad.comUp My Street is Dylan Collard‘s own project documenting shops between Kentish Town and Archway. His exhibition The Twelfth Man is currently showing at Exposure Gallery, 22-23 Little Portland Street, London W1. Dylan is represented by the Vue agency.