Book Review: Terror and Magnificence: The London Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor

Terror and Magnificence: The London Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, by David Meara.

OHCT Trustee Professor Malcolm Airs welcomes David Meara’s new book.

David Meara has followed his memorable book on John Betjeman published in 2021 with an extended essay on another of his heroes. The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor will be familiar in Oxford for his Clarendon Building and the north quadrangle of All Souls College but Meara’s focus here is on the magnificent churches that he designed in London in response to the Fifty New Churches Act of 1711. The introduction provides the social and political context for Hawksmoor’s work in London and the opening chapter offers a brief account of his career and the influences that shaped his distinctive architectural style. As his assistant, he collaborated with Sir Christopher Wren in the design of the towers and spires of many of his City of London churches and they became a key component of his own churches.

Six of Hawksmoor’s London churches survive today and Meara gives a detailed description of the principal features of all of them together with the circumstances that led to the commissions and a list of the principal craftsmen who worked on them. A helpful coloured map pinpoints their location. His enthusiastic prose is admirably complemented by the stunning colour photographs specially taken by Stuart Vallis which highlights their beauty and individuality. They are all memorable variations on the English baroque phase of classicism which flourished before Palladianism took its place later in the eighteenth century. But his final triumphal work, not finished until after his death in 1736, was the west front of Westminster Abbey which convincingly demonstrates Hawksmoor’s sensitivity to the Gothic tradition which he had employed so effectively at All Souls College as early as 1716.

Meara expresses the hope that his book ‘will be a useful and accessible guide to the extraordinary London churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, encouraging the casual visitor to a greater appreciation of his prodigious talent and inventiveness … and his singular architectural vision.’ There can be no doubt at all that he has fully accomplished that aim in a highly readable form of less than 100 pages. His publishers deserve equal praise for such an attractively presented book.

Terror and Magnificence: The London Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, by David Meara,

(Amberley Publishing, Stroud) May 2024, Pages 96, numerous illustrations,

ISBN 9781398116283  Paperback, £15.99

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