Words


CITYSCAPES IN WESTERN ART

It was a pleasure to present and lead a discussion in December with the Lee on Solent Art Group. The subject was 'Cityscapes in Art', which has been the subject of surprisingly little study. Researching it I could find only half a side on wikipedia and searches only led to studies of architecture, town planning, 'how to paint' and travelogues rather than the way cityscapes have evolved as a genre of their own. So this is my own take on the subject.

Human settlements originated in the middle east and until then artists concerned themselves mainly with the people and animals of hunter gatherer societies. So it was not until 1600 BCE that the first known townscape can be found - in Akrotiri on the island of Santorini. By the time of the Roman Empire both the quality of buildings and their depiction had become more sophisticated, as the frescos of the Trajan Baths (64 CE) show, with a nod towards perspective.

Thereafter came the Byzantine dark ages, dominated by religious art, with the Church setting strict guidelines on the subject matter, style and colours to be used to depict Jesus, Mary and a massive population of saints and sinners. The nearest we get to townscapes are really maps, such as the Mappa Mundi of Hereford Cathedral. Having recently visited a museum of medieval torture instruments it would be a brave artist who buck the trend. And of course they would need an equally brave patron at a time that most power and wealth lay with the Church and monarchy.

But with the growth of trade came new ideas and originality. Artists like Giotto began to depict human beings as real people with real towns as a backdrop. The first cityscape in modern western art is Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Good Government' of 1320, a massive fresco on the wall of the Palazzo Publico in Siena. It was meant to show how happy and fruitful Siena would be if properly governed. On the opposite wall 'Bad Government' depicts - in a scene predating Hyreonymus Bosch - how dreadful life would be if the town's councillors did not do their job well. I'm not sure whether they heeded the lesson.

The painting has particular meaning for me since around 20 years ago I asked my mum to reproduce it in needlepoint, after having copied it in watercolours on to a canvas. It took her 18 months to cover the four feet of canvas and it is the work of art I'm most proud of, even though (or maybe because) all the hard work was hers. Sadly she suffered a stroke a few months later and has not been able to practice her art since.

For much of the early renaissance the idea of a city or town as the subject rather than backdrop of a painting was the exception. The reinvention of perspective however caught the imagination of painters such as Fra Angelico whose Annunciation combines a traditional religious theme with a demonstration of perspective. The Ideal City of Laurana (1470) is a tour de force in perspective without people completely absent from the city as the sole subject.

Throughout the next century, townscapes were the backdrop for mainly religious paintings, with stunning examples by Perugino (Christ handing the keys to the church to St Peter, 1480, below), Giovanni Bellini (St Mark Preaching, 1504) and Raphael (School of Athens, 1510). In these the incredible cityscapes almost overwhelm the subject matter.

Secular subject matter - cityscapes, modest interiors and family portraits - really came to the fore with the Enlightenment and the growth of wealthy traders as patrons. Originating in the Netherlands it is probably no surprise that the foremost artist was Vermeer (View of Delft, 1680, below). Dutch painters were soon emulated by the rest of Europe with Canaletto (Grand Canal 1730) being the most well known (and prolific) artist.

These paintings are almost photographic in their accuracy and detail and so the invention of the camera accelerated a move away from painting according to the rules of traditional schools of art and to the invention and diversity that characterises modern art. you can almost feel the cold air on the Boulevard Montmartre in Pissarro's work (1897), the quietness of the evening gloom of Whistler's 'Nocturne (1872).

Interest in cityscapes declined with the growth of abstract painting, but the Psycho-inspiring mystery of Hopper's House by the Railroad (1942m below) and work of many other artists has ensured that cityscapes remain one of the most popular genres of painting. Time does not allow me to describe and categorise the enormous range of work but I've included just a handful. what they show is the vibrancy, colour and variety of subjects that make up this genre.

I couldn't possibly finish without mentioning my own work. My first large scale townscape was - perhaps fittingly - that of Assisi, home of so many of the very best early renaissance paintings. A commission of Winchester followed in 2000 (that's me, 16 years ago!) but it was at Frigiliana that I began to focus less on perspective and more on materials and colours. This translated to the more rugged, corrugated roofsapes of Jamestown and then to the sunny sandstone and shuttered walls of Lagrasse and the medieval stone and brickwork of Bishops Waltham. Finally, to finish with a more traditional commission, a birds eye view of Winchester that I've nearly completed. I can't imagine losing interest in the range and quality of human settlements that I've been privileged to witness.