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What springs to mind when we think of ‘Buildings in Art’?
Perhaps it is Canaletto’s view of the grand canal in Venice with its noble houses and fabulous basilicas, or a romantic gothic abbey painted by J M W Turner. Or Rouen Cathedral painted repeatedly and in close up by Monet in the 1890s? Or an English church abstracted by John Piper. Or perhaps not a building dominated by religion, but rather a modern ‘cathedral’ such a skyscraper, an industrial edifice or a humble domestic or farm building.
Artists of the 17th century aimed for realism when it came to painting buildings and towns
In the days before cameras, the only way of recording a building or your travels was to either sketch it yourself or buy a painting from a professional artist. Artists of the 17th century aimed for realism when it came to painting buildings and towns. The Dutch artist Vermeer (1632-1675) would try and achieve a photogenic accuracy with the use of a ‘camera obscura’ in his paintings of Delft. Artist’s renditions of buildings were thought to give a unique sense of place and atmosphere, as opposed to architectual working drawings, and this is still true to this day.
Follower of Canaletto ‘Venice’
In the 1730s and 1740s visitors on the grand tour would buy paintings of Venice or the Bay of Naples as a souvenir of their stay in Italy. Masters, such as Canaletto, would have been too expensive for most people and copies by unknown artists (such as the one illustrated) would have supplied the huge demand by travellers to have these paintings brought back to Britain to hang in grand houses for centuries, becoming in themselves part of the British culture.
J M W Turner, Ruins of West Front, Tintern Abbey, 1794
Interest in Romanticism and the Gothic fuelled the popularity in ‘a ruin’
Later in the eighteenth century, interest in Romanticism and the Gothic fuelled the popularity in ‘a ruin’ and no landscape was thought to be complete without one. There were plenty of ruined abbies in England thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries in Tudor times, such as Tintern Abbey, painted here by J M W Turner, which was hugely popular.
The Impressionists in the late 19th century embraced the new industrial landscape
Claude Monet ‘Gare St-Lazare’ 1877
The Impressionists in the late 19th century embraced the new industrial landscape and included the factories and railways that were being built at an incredible rate, even though many thought them ugly and a blot on the landscape. One of the most familiar of these to us and currently in the National Gallery is Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asniéres’ showing the factories in the background. Also of note is Monet’s ‘Gare St-Lazare’ of 1877, not just lauding the new technology of rail but also the grand station edifice, which must have looked quite cathedral-like.
George Seurat’s ‘Bathers at Asniéres’
The Impressionists method of painting ‘en plein air’ loosened the stylistic and mannered studio paintings of before and allowed them to paint what they saw, and paint quickly. We see the introduction of humble cottages and village buildings in paintings by Cézanne, and in the paintings of Pissarro and Sisley the many ordinary villages around Paris and along the Seine.
Paul Cézanne, View of Auvers, 1875
We see the introduction of humble cottages and village buildings in paintings by Cézanne
The Fauvists movement of 1904-1906 saw an explosion in colour in the way buildings were painted and the Cubist movement in the early 1900s, saw yet another way to ‘see’ buildings by playing with perspective and angle. You only have to look at the paintings of André Derain and Maurice de Vlaminck, for example, to see how they embraced both these movements. In fact Cubism also had a lasting influence on architecture, rather than the other way round, an influence which continued with artists such as Lyonel Feininger (see Illustration) in Der Blaue Reiter.
Maurice de Vlaminck ‘Champs de Ble’ and Restaurant at Bougival, 1905-06
The Cubist movement in the early 1900s, saw yet another way to ‘see’ buildings by playing with perspective and angle
André Derain, Houses on the Waterfront, 1910
Lyonel Feininger ‘Gaerndorf’ 1924
Giorgio De Chirico’s (1888-1978) had a surrealist attitude towards buildings which were an integral part of his compositions. Think of the oxymoron of empty streets and deserted towns in his other worldly, metaphysical art. In this painting there is mystery in the sinister blackness of the arches and a feeling of malevolence and isolation.
George De Chirico, 1913
One of Britain’s most popular artists LS Lowry (1887 - 1976) painted the factories and back to back houses of his home town of Salford and other industrial towns of the North West of England. Their ordered regular angles are contrasted by the chaos of human traffic that people the space.
Laurence Stephen Lowry, The Rush Hour, oil on canvas, 1964
Their ordered regular angles are contrasted by the chaos of the human traffic that people the space
Frank Auerbach is a German/British painter (b. 1931) who repeatedly painted the view of Mornington Crescent in London from his studio window over a period of many years. When he first moved there in the mid 1950s many of London’s street were still bomb damaged and the various props and scaffolding were a source of inspiration to him.
Many of London’s street were still bomb damaged and the props and scaffolding was a source of inspiration
‘Mornington Crescent, Summer morning II’ 1960s
Artists are still able to capture the essence or atmosphere in buildings; in their ordinariness, in their refurbishment, or in their decay
There is a continued fascination in contemporary art with buildings under construction or due for demolition. Think of the Turner Prize winner Rachel Whiteread and her brilliant cast sculpture of “House”, exploring the spaces inbetween the walls and seeing a house in reverse. So while the invention of the camera has fulfilled our need for historical accuracy, artists are still able to capture the essence or atmosphere in buildings; in their ordinariness, in their refurbishment, or in their decay. Personally I find an aesthetic beauty and character in peeling paint, an old wooden door or sunlight on a roof when I see it in a painting.
Artist’s renditions of buildings were thought to give a unique sense of place and atmosphere, as opposed to architectual working drawings, and this is still true to this day
In this exhibition we see the hugely popular mixed media paintings of Pete Monaghan, who, in his unique way, celebrates the ordinary, tumble down character of British and Irish barns and cottages in a very lyrical way, using his incredible drawing skills together with collage and other media.
The romantic paintings of Mike Duckering whose overlapping layers of paint hint at the history of the building, the burning heat of the day, or in other words, the sense of place.
Interior barn paintings by Jane Overbury who plays with shadows of sunlight and the transformative power of the building to divert the light.
Also paintings by John Henry, whose love of London and its iconic architecture has led him to do a series of work of St Paul’s Cathedral, The Millenium Bridge and Battersea Power Station (undergoing re-construction).