Re-visiting the grand tour

August 2013

Computer Art Image of the Month

Grand Tour In Search Of Soane

Click the image to enlarge

Credit: Emily Allchurch, Grand Tour: In Search of Soane (after Gandy), Transparency on LED lightbox, 106.6x182.4cm, 2012

Copyright the artist, reproduced with permission.

The UK artist and Royal College of Art graduate Emily Allchurch creates complex photographic images which draw on art history to make contemporary re-creations of iconic works.

Our image this month, Grand Tour: In Search of Soane, an amazingly detailed and finely-crafted work is currently on view at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition (to 18 August).

Grand Tour: In Search of Soane is a re-creation of Joseph Gandy’s seminal 1818 painting Perspective of various designs for public and private buildings executed by John Soane between 1780 and 1815, a homage to his mentor.

Everything shown in this picture (as in the Gandy inspiration) was in fact built by Sir John Soane, (1753-1837) the English Neo-classical architect and professor of architecture at the Royal Academy, famous for designing the Bank of England. Perhaps his most important commission, the Bank runs across the middle of the image.

Detail is obviously important to Emily and in this meticulously constructed work the laws of scale are suspended, as though we are on a stage set with wonderful things to discover. It gives a new twist to the 18th century concept of the grand tour, as the artist herself spent three months travelling the country seeking out the surviving buildings to photograph. A surprising amount - the majority, do still exist.

It was exhibited last year at Pitshanger Museum Gallery & House in Ealing, west London - the former country retreat of Soane, rebuilt to his own design (this building is visible in middle left).

One of the pleasures of this work is discovering the many details yourself, but to list just a few, on the left can be seen the Soane tomb in St Pancras churchyard, designed by him and built from marble and Portland stone, in which his wife and elder son are also buried. Its design was a direct influence on Sir Giles Gilbert Scott’s design for the red telephone box - which Emily includes in the lower middle of the picture.

Included in the picture are the tools of the artist’s trade, shown in the right foreground. Where Gandy placed Soane’s architectural apparatus, Emily has depicted the photographic equipment, maps and paraphernalia required for her grand tour journey.

It took the artist a further three months behind the computer using Adobe Photoshop to painstakingly collage together many hundreds of pictures of buildings and design features. This process is vital; as the artist says, ‘Gradually letting it build is very important; the time you take to let the work grow becomes part of your history too.’

Gandy’s original may be the inspiration and starting point for her research, but Emily believes the skill is in how different elements are put together and there is an admirable seamlessness to her work, a degree of verisimilitude that makes it difficult to believe that we are not actually viewing a real scene.

This is precisely the artist’s intention and it is for this reason that she rarely includes people in her work. She wishes to invite the viewer in and allow us to become the protagonist. Not putting the picture behind glass helps with this too.

Emily revealed one of her tricks of the trade to me - she tries to shoot her subjects in flat light, so that she can add her own shadowing and light effects later in the studio.

Indeed the work has a wonderful luminosity - in fact it actually glows from within as it is displayed on an LED lightbox, (which, the artist tells me, has many benefits including giving an even light on a thin panel flush to the wall as well as being environmentally friendly.)

This is seen to especially great effect in the sky-lights, dotted around the picture. As anyone who has visited The Dulwich Picture Gallery will know, one of Soane’s special architectural signatures was spectacular glass lanterns and windows built into the ceilings to flood the rooms with natural light. In fact, Emily’s picture has found a particularly apt temporary home here at the RA shown as it is in the top-lit, sky-lighted photography gallery.

Incidentally this gallery is beautifully hung with less of the crowding that so characterises the annual RA summer show. It was encouraging for me to learn how well the summer show is doing overall in terms of commercial sales this year, pointing perhaps toward a recovery in the commercial art world, sections of which have been in the doldrums for the past several years. 

The work is proving very popular within the summer show; viewers no doubt recognising the huge degree of skill that has gone into this - something that would have been impossible without the computer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see this work placed in the permanent collection of one of England’s great Soane buildings - for example the Dulwich Picture Gallery, or indeed his former home, now the Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields?  (both of which are featured).

Emily is currently working on a commission in Japan with the Tokaido Hiroshige Art Museum, continuing her interest in the 19th-C Japanese printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige. Her previous series Tokyo Story (2011), paid homage to Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (1856-58).

Now she is producing work based on the old pilgrim route running between Edo (old Tokyo) and Kyoto, inspired by Hiroshige’s famous series of woodblocks of this roadway for a solo show at the museum from November 2013 to January 2014.

The Sense of Soane exhibition from Pitshanger Gallery, including this work, will begin to tour the country later this year, starting at The School of Art Gallery and Museum at Aberystwyth University from November 2013 to February 2014 and Wimpole Hall in 2014.

Catherine Mason is the author of A Computer in the Art Room: the origins of British computer arts 1950-80, published in 2008.

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