What a blight the so called “International style” of architecture has been on our planet. It has wiped out all local and ethnic styles of building the world over. People hoot and howl if their spoken language is threatened by a Lingua Franca but hooteth not when their vernacular style of building is wiped off the map. Europe has for the most part just surrounded their historical centres with a ring of dreary concrete leaving the old encysted by the new. Britain due to the unfortunate rise of the town planner in the fifties and sixties has lost a great deal more. If you took photos from around the world of recent everyday urban developments and removed any signs in Photoshop then I doubt if anybody could place them geographically. So how did this appalling state of affairs come about, how did it happen that what was once considered the greatest of the arts was reduced to engineering and quantity surveying?
Before the invention of architects as distinct profession most structures and all vernacular structures were built by tradesmen. In medieval times a “Master Builder” was employed on the greatest projects. We know little of most of these men, the most famous are more properly military engineers since that was area many of the really big projects were being carried out. Leonardo, Michelangelo and many others drew elaborate bastions with all the lines of fire drawn in. In our towns and villages however the builder was your man. He operated I dare say via tradition that was slowly pushed forwards by the desire of their clients to embrace new fashions. These fashions were mostly imported by the aristocracy and royalty and slowly made their way into the everyday vernacular styles.
To this end many books of architectural detail were printed, which were in effect catalogues that a builder or client could choose from. Outside of building for display most utilitarian structures were simply made along traditional lines from local materials. The result is for the most part unintentionally harmonious but varied and if destinations favoured by tourists are any guide still pleasing today. We rather cruelly and disparagingly refer to the effect as “pretty” or “quaint” but no such intention was intended in their original construction. It is interesting how when architects try and fake this organic and empirical development the result is lack lustre to say the least. The arts and crafts developments are the most convincing as they have an agenda of their own and mostly do mot seek to mimic but to make a new form from an old idiom.
Vernacular building design has always followed a step or three behind the styles of the great projects of any time. The great Renaissance and Baroque revolutions first appeared in the big cities paid for by the church and nobles. It is interesting to not that although we started to have architects they were all artists first and foremost. Bramante, Bernini, Michelangelo and others were all high achieving artists in their own right. Today that is far from the case. I was initially going to be an architect and applied to do a degree. In the run up I went and worked for various local architects my father knew. I soon realised most architecture had no art in it whatsoever but a great deal of accountancy. In truth most of the projects would have proceeded better with just a builder and an engineer, the architect was just an irritation.
So it is that in our age we see feats of engineering but not of art. Our cityscapes have no consistency of overall form, but a deadening uniformity of detail and material. This is not by the way a call for change, we are too late architecture is dead and will not be returning. There is a tendency for people bemoaning the visual state of our built environment to recommend a return to Tudorbethan or Mock-Georgian but this is painfully naive and where it is tried fails due to there being no one with the visual training to make it convincing. No there is no going back, buildings are going to be by the hugest of majorities soulless and ugly for the remainder of man’s existence. The reason for this is not the great projects by the “Starchitects” but the innumerable small developments by jobbing architects who have for the most part no interest in the history of their craft or any decent training in composition, massing, decoration or proportion. So however good a modern building is it will inevitably drown in the vast ocean of workaday dreariness. Indeed anything that is at all good makes the surrounding clutter seem emptier of beauty by comparison. Still architects do keep the market for black polo necked jumpers and expensive round spectacle frames afloat.
We actually have laws to prevent buildings looking beautiful. The regulations that control sill height and window size mean that most fenestration will be ugly. That of course tends to preclude any facade from being at all elegant. The manufacture of windows to standard sizes of clumsy proportion and design puts the final nail in the coffin. Should we care? Well probably not. The generation that does care is ageing fast and the next will not understand what I am complaining about. Past styles are fodder for theme parks and film designers only and not to be ever seen again in our everyday built environments. Who should we blame for this visual poverty that future generations must live with? Well building has to some degree always been about enclosing practical space for the least possible cost. This is where the International Style delivers without question. Building has also always been a display of prestige, but now we tend to be swayed by post code and whether there is a 2 acre underground gym. We are interested in contents rather than any external appearance. You may rail against the horrid boxy uniformity of a Bovis estate, but though the buildings are of execrable design they are cheap enough to make so that a far higher proportion than in any other age can live in their perfectly adequate and convenient comfort.
Now that is of my chest and on to yours I can post some paintings. After a stint of watercolour back to the oils again.
A panoramic view from Okeford Hill. I did a small watercolour a year or so ago of this and decided to make a larger studio oil from it. The result wasn’t great so I went back to the location with the studio painting. I was very lucky in that the cloud shadows were adding splashes of light across the valley which looked great. With that and a new sky the whole thing is much improved. Oils 12in by 26in.
Here is the original watercolour, I worked from both this and photos taken at the time. I don’t much like working from just a photo, it seems to be easier if I have drawn or painted the scene however slight the sketch. The thing is that doing the looking fixes memories in your head that re-emerge when you come to paint in the studio.
Hambledon Hill with a threatening storm. Another done from a previous plein air watercolour. I didn’t need to revisit the site this time. It would have ben pointless in any case as the lighting was everything. Oils 12in by 12in.
I am still visiting London to paint with the Brass Monkeys, this is Notting Hill Gate. This was a struggle as the light was varying constantly. I might cut this down to a square format as the stuff at the top is bringing nothing to the party. With the best will in the world it is very hard to make the best compositional decisions when racing to get some small part of what you see down. That any of them ever turn into a decent picture is a miracle! Oils 12in by 8in.
Another from the same day. Not quite sure what this needs… will probably go into a drawer to be found only after my final demise! Oils 8in by 12in.
Somewhere in Surrey… a very quick sketch, but a great scene. I am experimenting with surfaces at present. I have decided that the primed MDF I have been using is too limited and I don’t much like the “feel” of the paintings done on it when varnished and framed. The quality worryingly reminds me of hand made place mats! 6in by 12in Oils.
The same day and 60 mile East. My friend Steve Alexander was busy painting the interior so I went and stood in the drizzle to do this. I love trying to catch the day however gloomy. Whether anyone would ever want the resulting daub on their wall is of course another matter! This is Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. 6in by 12in Oils.
Before doing the grey day oil I did this quick sketch of the interior of the abbey. Romsey is one of my favourite buildings it has a wonderful scale and elegance. When tackling such a subject it is very important to start in a manner that is practical. I could have made an accurate architectural drawing, but that would have taken too long. The charm of these sketches is in some part due to the constraints of time and media. I am always amazed at just how much you can express of a very complex subject with relatively few lines. Pen and Ink.
Steve had accompanied me back to Dorset so we set out to paint the day away. This is Shroton in Dorset a mile or so from me. The forecast had been for rain but this is what we got instead. I rather like the double square as a board proportion especially for landscape. Oils 6in by 12in.
Next up was Shroton church. I love pictures of graveyards and so do other artists I know… but no one will ever buy one! I just had fun with this I didn’t want to over elaborate a very simple scene. There was a figure but it fell to centrally and so got expunged. Oils 8in by 10in.
We next went to the wonderful Fontmell Down. Unfortunately there was a herd of very rumbustious bullocks in the field so we had to retreat. On the plus side though I got some wonderful photos of them with the down in the background which will in due course be a studio painting. 10in by 12in Oils
Now, as they say, for something completely different. As the rain had well and truly arrived Steve and I set up a still life. I have only done 3 or four such paintings in my whole life. Not because I dislike them but just never got around to doing any. I must do more and Dorset will no doubt supply plenty of wet days in which to paint them. There was a loaf in the picture too, but it was too close and I eventually painted it out. This meant waiting for the area to dry a bit so I had to set the whole thing up again just to finish the table cloth. Great fun though and very good practice to try and capture the various surfaces without getting fussy. I am not much of a fan of “dutch” style over finished still lives. Oils 12in by 16in.
I have an upcoming exhibition so I have been framing pictures like mad. My first solo show so very nervous!