Obituaries: Ernest Hawkins

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The Independent Online
Ernest Joseph Weaver Hawkins, architectural sculptor and mosaic and wall- painting restorer: born Dulwich 24 April 1905; apprenticed to Lawrence Turner, architectural sculptor, 1922-27; technical assistant, Byzantine Institute of America 1938-62; FSA 1957; Assistant Field Director and Research Associate, Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, Washington DC 1963-75; OBE 1971; married 1930 Hilda Routen (one son, and one daughter deceased); died Whiteley Village, Surrey 8 June 1993.

THE BYZANTINE monuments of Istanbul were brought alive for dozens of grateful visitors in the 1950s and 1960s by the ubiquitous presence and guidance of Ernest Hawkins.

Sir Steven Runciman's Traveller's Alphabet (1991) evokes the atmosphere in recalling that when Thomas Whittemore organised the restoration of the mosaics of St Sophia in the 1930s he employed 'first-class craftsmen', and he singles out Ernest Hawkins as 'the world's finest authority on the uncovering of mosaics and frescoes', noting that to his efforts we owe the restoration of the church of the Chora, now the Kariye Camii - 'the loveliest thing to see in all Istanbul'. Ernest Hawkins did more than investigate and restore a large proportion of the surviving mosaics from the Byzantine empire; his co-operation with professional art historians also set the agenda for work on Byzantine monumental arts for a generation.

The death of Ernest Hawkins deprives us of a person of restless energy and unmatched direct knowledge of Byzantine art. He first went to St Sophia at Istanbul in 1938, less from desire than need for employment, although his enthusiasm for the Middle Ages was already manifest in his own artistic work - his carvings reflecting the Romanesque taste of this generation of English sculptors. In St Sophia, where Whittemore had gained permission to uncover Christian mosaics from beneath their Islamic plaster covering, Hawkins on his own account soon made a nuisance of himself, proposing priorities for mosaics to be revealed. Later, employed by Dumbarton Oaks, he was persuasive in initiating campaigns both in St Sophia and elsewhere in the city; he was at his happiest in seeing progress in several places at once - at St Sophia, the Kariye Camii, Fetiye Camii (Pammakaristos), Zeirek Camii (Pantocrator), Bodrum Camii, Kalenderhane Camii, Church of Constantine Lips and St Eirene - although he sometimes wondered whether he was regarded as just a roving labourer supplying materials for armchair scholars.

His encouragement for a re-examination of the apse mosaic of St Sophia in 1964 solved the controversial questions of the precise order of the phases of work, and he concluded that the image of the Virgin and Child could be precisely attributed to AD867. During these years he was phenomenally active, working at Cordoba and Centcelles in Spain, at Sinai and Aphrodisias, at Jerusalem and Madaba, at Kartmin and Chios, at Vatopedi and San Marco at Venice, and in several monuments on Cyprus, whose importance he was perceptive in recognising.

Hawkins was impatient of those who did not ask questions of the materials they were restoring or describing, and of the 'pseudo-scientific' restorer. He recalled an episode at the Kariye Camii when his American colleagues agonised for days on how to match and tone in a certain medieval colour. In the end, after listening to their vain attempts to describe this colour, he upstaged them by slipping down to the Egyptian Bazaar and producing the exact colour-match. The solution lay in knowing the medieval pigment for the colour and where to buy it: the moral for him was that Byzantine colours should be described as pigments, not in impressionistic adjectives. But he had great affection and friendship for those who shared his patience and desire for detail and were prepared to spend the time in the field. His contribution to art history lay in his fantastic knowledge of the evidence on which empirical art history must depend. For him the study of art lay in recreating and reliving the experience of the moment of production.

Istanbul gave him the materials to explain the technical production of Byzantine mosaic and wall-painting. He changed the widely accepted interpretation of the manufacture of medieval mosaics by observing that pragmatic decisions had perpetually been made by the artists as they adapted to actual conditions and materials; following him, writings on Byzantine mosaics have accepted that the tesserae were directly set in the buildings, not on panels in the studio and subsequently fixed to the wall. With his imaginative ability to put himself in the place of the original artist, he could visualise the circumstances as work began and itemise the decisions made - perhaps to touch up a mosaic with paint or tilt the tesserae to catch more light.

His abilities for close observation were dramatically shown at the monastery of St Catherine's at Sinai, where he found that art historians had studied the mosaics of Justinian's church without realising that the surface had been grossly varnished in the 19th century; he managed with the help of a few available solvents and monks to clean the surface.

Some of his most challenging work was in Cyprus; the wall-paintings of Asinou were cleansed of the soot from candles which had been pressed into the plaster by worshippers; and in the cave-church of St Neophytos, gross disfigurements of the 12th-century paintings by visitors' graffiti were painstakingly concealed. Some of his most frustrating experiences came from the early mosaics of north Cyprus; he cleaned and consolidated the sixth-century apses of Livadhia and Kanakaria, but both have been looted since 1974; the mosaics of Livadhia are gone, some pieces from Kanakaria are now in Nicosia after their recovery from Indianapolis. The full appalling story is atmospherically narrated by Dan Hofstadter in the New Yorker (July 1992).

Hawkins consolidated mosaics and wall-paintings; he never remade or repainted: his principles and methods are recorded in Schlunk's Die Mosaikkuppel von Centcelles (1988). He was adamant that techniques of removing mosaics from the wall and resetting them would lose the original nuances of the surface. He prevented the removal of mosaics from the walls of the Kariye Camii, but was the first to admit that the condition of the structure of all historic buildings must be kept constantly under review. Although he felt the best way to conserve a Byzantine building was 'to keep the roof on and visitors out', he was too much a missionary for medieval art to take his instincts seriously. His photographs and field notes he has given to the Courtauld Institute of Art; we intend to find ways of ensuring his archive is permanently recorded.

(Photograph omitted)