Hugh Buchanan paints Edinburgh's New Town
‘While our new city spreads around / Her bonny wings on fairy ground,’ thus Robert Fergusson celebrated the New Town. And it was indeed new. Building had begun in 1767, five years before he wrote Auld Reekie, his epic of Edinburgh, from which these lines come. So 2017 is the quarter millennium of our new city first spreading her bonny wings. Celebrating its 175th anniversary, The Scottish Gallery was founded just a few years after building stopped, for the New Town was never completed. It was nevertheless a great experiment in planned social order. The size of the hole left in Craigleith Quarry whence came the stone from which it was built was such that the Great Pyramid of Giza, inverted, would scarcely have filled it. So it follows that in social effort and volume of stone moved, the New Town is equivalent to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It should be celebrated accordingly especially at this significant anniversary, but there is little sign of that publicly at least. How much more welcome then are Hugh Buchanan’s paintings celebrating, not just the New Town, but the whole of Georgian Edinburgh. They capture its beauty, too, not as some battered fossil that has survived by chance (though maybe chance has mattered more than design), but as it is lived in now. He reminds us to look again and see that for all that has changed, its beauty is still there to inspire if we do but pay attention.
The Great Pyramid was built for one dead man, the New Town for the many and the living; the Pyramid symbolises hierarchy; the New Town is purposefully anti-hierarchical. Uniform exteriors give no clue to the relative wealth of those who dwell within. Indeed, following Robert Adam’s example in Charlotte Square inspired by Diocletian’s Palace at Split, the grand facades of Moray Place, Great King Street and elsewhere calmly propose that everybody lives in a palace. With communally owned gardens and views to the natural world beyond, as the human order of its geometric streets merges with that wider order and so is part of it, not apart from it, the New Town was and is a philosophic city, the Enlightenment in stone.
The first artist to give adequate expression to its ambition was Alexander Nasmyth with two major paintings, Edinburgh from Princes Street and Edinburgh from Calton Hill. The former shows the Old Town and the New Town: history and the future in harmony with the world beyond. In the foreground the building of what is now the Royal Scottish Academy celebrates art and learning at its heart. The other picture, Edinburgh from Calton Hill, with a view across the city in the warm northwestern light of a late midsummer evening, shows the citizens enjoying their leisure and recreation as Nasmyth celebrates the profound humanity of the ideals that inspired their city. To embody the idea of the philosophic city too, he has placed the tomb that Robert Adam designed for David Hume dead centre in his composition. (Both these pictures were also a deliberate, democratic riposte to the servile flummery of George IV’s visit and the painters who recorded it.)
F.C.B.Cadell followed Nasmyth and celebrated the New Town as it is lived in. The interiors he painted, particularly of his flat in Ainslie Place, are masterly. Most striking of all is Orange Blind [see p.18]. Like Nasmyth’s picture, it is set on a midsummer evening. The orange blind glows with light pouring in from the sun low in the north west. In his picture, Cadell explores the ideal of harmony built into the very stone of the New Town. The proportions of the buildings throughout and indeed in Edinburgh’s other Georgian buildings, for the New Town has no monopoly, are Palladian and as Rudolf Wittkower showed many years ago, Palladio’s proportions were based on the Platonic theory of proportion in music. Thus harmony is extended, through mathematics, into architectural space and structure.
Cadell seems to have reached this idea quite independently for the key to his painting is the pianist. His music fills the room, not aurally, but visually. The dominant colours, green and orange, are secondaries, the minor key. The picture is a sonata in a minor key, Schubert’s Sonata in B Flat Minor, D.960, perhaps, beautiful, poetic and reflective, but now all realised through space, light, colour and geometry.
Hugh Buchanan pays a lovely homage to Cadell’s picture in his own variations on the theme of an orange blind drawn in a high Georgian window. Seen from outside, the astragals are silhouetted against the light within. They also cast a grid of shadow on the blind, but then in Playfair Window II [cat.9] there is even the hint of a third grid as light from the street catches the lower edges of the astragals. This whole complex of interlocking grids within the wider rectangle of the window plays variations on the Golden Section. In the largest version of this composition, which is simply called Cadell’s Orange Blind [cat.12], part of the channelled masonry beneath the window is also visible. Irregular trapezes of stone flanking the central keystone visually support the grid of the window, but they also play a further variation on the theme of the Golden Section. Buchanan then subtly subverts all this Euclidian geometry, however. First of all he feathers the bottom of the blind at a casual angle to the main grid. Then the flowing forms of the cast iron balcony are silhouetted against the rectangles of the window. They create a cadenza arching over the formal structure of a wonderful concerto.
Buchanan also works a variation on the theme of the orange blind in pale yellow. At the Dentist [cat.18] offers a further variation with light glowing through a glazed door and the fanlight above it framed by the shadowy exterior wall. Blinds and bright sunlight also feature in two of several exquisite paintings of Georgian interiors.
All Hugh Buchanan’s paintings are in watercolour. William Blake detested what he called the ‘blotting and blurring demons' of oil paint. Buchanan feels much the same and so has always eschewed oil for water-colour’s much greater luminosity. As Turner demonstrated so brilliantly, it is the supreme medium for painting light. It is transparent and if you paint on white paper, its whiteness will always shine through. Buchanan sometimes tints it with yellow, but that doesn’t dim it. It only makes the light warmer. He also frequently abrades the painted surface to expose again the pure white of the paper beneath the paint as a pattern of sparkling light.
When Lord Elgin travelled to Greece and brought back the Elgin Marbles, he took with him as draughtsman a watercolour painter, Gio-vanni Battista Lusieri. Lusieri was no ordinary watercolour painter, however. Like Arthur Melville after him, he was ambitious for the medium and painted on a far larger scale than anybody had done before. In this Buchanan follows both his great predecessors. The major works here are five feet high. Whatever Lusieri’s ambitions, however, Elgin’s choice may have been primarily practical. Even on a large scale watercolours are much more portable than oil paintings. Nevertheless it also acknowledged the affinity between watercolour, with its command of light, and classical architecture, also a language of light. In the southern sun where it originated, cut in marble or white limestone, its sharp lines create relief through contrasts of bright light and deep shadow. It translates well to the softer light of the north however, especially realised in the soft greys and golds of Edinburgh’s Craigleith stone. Geologically, this is an Old Red Sandstone, too, a stone hard enough to take and to preserve across the centuries (if it is not brutally cleaned as tragically some buildings have been) all its clear lines and intricate geometry. Hugh Buchanan captures its qualities in his paintings of one of the gates of the Royal High School, of the entrance to Old College, of West Register House and of a beautiful Doric doorway in Broughton Street.
The first of these, Royal High School Doorway [cat.1], is a superb study of classical form, but in addition, sunlight brings out the warmth of the stone. The slope of the street, the angle of the shadow and the decorative iron gate also add variety. These things together soften the formality of the architecture and so reconcile it with the untidy world of which it is part: the ideal is reconciled with the real. The paintings of the Doric doorway in Broughton Street are also a reminder that domestic classicism was not confined to the New Town and how widely accepted this classical language was. These latter pictures are also a homage to A.J.Youngson’s The Making of Classical Edinburgh, however, itself a classic, whose publication fifty years ago marked the bicentenary of the New Town. Youngson’s book gave us a full account of the magnificence of the city’s scheme for the first time. It is also illustrated with photographs by Edwin Smith - about which Ian Gow writes later in this catalogue - including a particularly fine one of the Broughton Street doorway. Fifty years later at this so little-noticed quarter millennium, Hugh Buchanan’s exhibition and The Scottish Gallery’s initiative in proposing it, are the nearest thing we have to Youngson’s celebration of Edinburgh’s grandeur.
Buchanan’s paintings of the entrance to Old College are also superb studies of classical form. With its twenty-five-foot, monolithic Roman Doric columns, this entrance is one of Robert Adam’s grandest creations. Buchanan certainly does justice to its Roman grandeur, but in his pictures he also pays close attention to the actual steps and with them how these buildings are lived in and used. As a river wears down stone, so a river of learning, the tread of countless students’ feet over the centuries, has worn away even hard Craigleith stone. Once perfect, the steps are now uneven. Life qualifies classical grandeur even as it is enhanced by it.
Embodying the Enlightenment, it is fitting that Old College should be seen not in the light of day, but in Tail Lights, South Bridge [cat.27], touched by the red glow of brake lights and of the traffic light that has caused the cars to stop. Both are reflected on the huge blocks of stone that support Adam’s monolithic columns. Artificial light like this is definitive of the modern world, but in a series of very striking works Buchanan shows how it can add new drama to the great geometry of classical architecture and so, too, how that is still topical.
The Orange Blind pictures use both internal and external artificial light. With Dundas House, Surgeons’ Hall, the Dean Institute, and the Royal Scottish Academy, he paints the buildings dramatically lit by artificial light. In Dundas House [cat.30], the facade of the palace that William Chambers built for Henry Dundas - or more accurately intruded into the New Town on his behalf - is brilliantly lit against the night sky. Thomas Campbell’s statue of the Earl of Hopetoun standing by his horse is silhouetted against the light. In Surgeons’ Hall [cat.29] the Ionic columns of the portico are similarly in dramatic silhouette. In The Dean Institute by Night [cat.32], Thomas Hamilton’s orphanage and now part of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Buchanan again uses silhouette, but he also goes closer to the detail of the building. Detail becomes his whole subject in the beautiful picture of the RSA. With a single light source above, the towering perspective of a pair of Playfair’s Greek Doric columns and the matching pilasters beyond together frame a section of acanthus frieze on the inner wall.
Boldly, in his paintings of West Register House and St Stephen’s Church (also by Playfair) Buchanan takes on one of the trickiest situations for a painter of light, a scene lit both by artificial light and the radiance of an evening sky. Magritte managed this subversively in paintings like Empire of Light, but Buchanan acknowledges a less fashionable inspiration in the work of American illustrator Maxfield Parrish. A brilliant technician, when he wasn’t painting fairies Parrish was a master of glowing evening skies and multiple light sources.
In Buchanan’s Charlotte Square at Dusk [cat.31], the secondary light source is muted, but the Albert Memorial nevertheless picks up a ghostly light from the street. His painting of St Stephen’s Church though is a masterly study of artificial light and of shadow, the half-tones beautifully observed, all seen against a luminous evening sky. The composition is also a remarkable achievement in perspective. The cavernous interior of the illuminated arch and the dizzy perspective of the whole angled composition are a superb tribute to Playfair’s idiosyncratic church. Inspired by Hawksmoor’s city churches it is more baroque than neoclassical and in this Buchanan’s composition does it justice. The dizzy spiral composition of another painting, New Town Staircase [cat.23], looking up to a glowing oval skylight suggests Borromini, who was in turn an inspiration to Hawksmoor, but it also reveals how Buchanan himself is not averse to the occasional vivid baroque flourish.
St Stephen’s Church also features in Chrome Louvres [cat.35], St Stephen’s at Dusk [cat.33] and St Stephen’s Reflections [cat.34], two of several paintings of buildings reflected in the shiny paintwork of parked cars. Buchanan also paints Charlotte Square and Regent Bridge in the same bold way. Cars are ubiquitous in the New Town - though the streets of better run cities like Florence or Amsterdam show it need not be so - but they are simply too alien ever to be, like the boats on Canaletto’s canals, just part of the scene. That presents a problem to anyone who tries to paint the streets. Buchanan’s pictures of buildings by artificial light cleverly avoid this problem, but cars are so omnipresent that to ignore them altogether would suggest defeat: that his paintings are nostalgic, regretting modernity. But they are not. As he does with artificial light, in these pictures especially, but also throughout his show, Buchanan accepts modernity and indeed paints very modern pictures. You would never doubt that they belong to the twenty first century. Bringing cars in as reflective devices is very ingenious. It acknowledges their presence. It even incorporates them into the scene, but doing so puts them firmly in their place. It also creates opportunities for some very striking and very modern compositions, however. So by his modernity, Hugh Buchanan demonstrates how, after a quarter of a millennium, the Enlightenment ideals that drove the New Town are as modern and as pertinent as they ever were, if indeed they are not now even more urgent.
Light is at the heart of architecture and how we perceive it. Inter-railing around Europe in the first summer of my university years, I sought refuge from the sweltering heat of the midday Sicilian sun in the shade of the Baroque extravaganza that passes for the front of the cathedral in Syracuse, with its volute scrolls that resembled giant Swiss rolls to my midday hunger. All that movement provided shade from a sun high in the sky. Yet as I cooled down and ventured around the corner, I noticed one of the giant, fluted and timeworn Doric columns of the original Greek temple of Athena, which forms the basis of the cathedral, protruding from the wall. With a couple of decades of reflection and sitting here now in the city of Playfair, Adam and Hamilton, what brings those uneasy bedfellows in Syracuse together in my mind, is not just that they are ultimately branches of the same tradition, but that they are both reactions to light. They both rely on the heavy shadow of that hot and high sun to create movement and depth in a way that classical architecture in northern climes does not. Here, 56 degrees north in Edinburgh, in contrast to their Greek, Roman and indeed Baroque predecessors, the architects and masons well knew the power of the low sun at high latitudes. Playfair, in his treatment of the Royal Scottish Academy, provides us with perfect facsimiles of those ancient Greek columns in Syracuse, but with the addition under the colonnade of an elaborate and deeply carved Anthemion frieze which could only ever have been illuminated, in his day, by a low northern sun. Furthermore, walk down Great King Street from east to west towards the end of a bright, clear day in late winter and the silvery Craigleith sandstone is turned golden, and the windows darkened by contrast, set just far enough back in their reveals by their architects to produce the same rhythms on a horizontal plane as sought by those unnamed craftsmen in the 5th century BC on a vertical one.
Hugh Buchanan’s manipulation of light through water and colour takes the viewer back into the dreams and visions of that extraordinary group of architects, produced by 18th and 19th century Edinburgh, as they cast their eyes across the undeveloped ridge and gently falling northward slopes that were to become the New Towns of Edinburgh. Too readily we forget that we live among the most rigorous embodiment of the ideals of the European Enlightenment, the largest group of high quality neo-Classical buildings to be found anywhere in the world. The excitement and creative energy of these architects' minds is to be found in the details that light picks out for us, with Hugh acting as editor-in-chief for our untrained eyes. The usual medium of architecture lovers - the photograph - only ever tells a small part of the story: no film or digital sensor has yet been created that is as sensitive as the human eye, meaning that architectural photography is mostly limited to day time images. Yet this exhibition reminds us that we see our city as much in the darkness of winter as in the summer light, capturing those glimpses of buildings that are hurried past on the way to catch a bus, rather than admired during a brief pause in our busy, living classical city.
Some visitors to Hugh Buchanan’s exhibition, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Craig’s competition-winning plan for the New Town of Edinburgh and the start of building, may find the image of the handsome Greek double Doric doorway at the head of Broughton Street, with its repeating wreaths in the unifying frieze, hauntingly familiar. It is certainly an archaeological quotation, demonstrating the scholarship of the New Town’s architects, but it had already caught the eye of an earlier artist, the brilliant photographer Edwin Smith, when he undertook an equivalent survey fifty years ago to celebrate the bi-centenary of the Craig plan.
Smith’s photographic survey was commissioned by Edinburgh University Press and ‘taken specially’ to illustrate A. J. Youngson’s The Making of Classical Edinburgh, 1966, a ground-breaking analysis by this celebrated economic historian to set the Craig Plan and its execution in the context of the Enlightenment. Youngson’s timely assessment of its unique cultural significance profoundly influenced the measures that were soon put in place to conserve the New Town following the Bicentenary and kicked off by Sir Robert Matthew’s Assembly Rooms Conference, where Youngson was one of the speakers in 1970, and the foundation of the Edinburgh New Town Conservation Committee the following year.
If Edwin Smith (1912-1971) was the obvious choice for the Press, as the most celebrated architectural photographer of his day and regarded by Betjeman as ‘a genius at photography’ with a long run of illustrated books for Thames and Hudson, his response to Edinburgh, was deeply personal and idiosyncratic creating a vision of the New Town as distinctive as Atget’s Paris - the photographer he most revered. Thames and Hudson’s Scotland, 1955, included Smith’s first photographs of ‘Old Reekie’ in a penumbral fug.
Although the first photographs in The Making of Classical Edinburgh are devoted to the Old Town, with its high tenements rising from a foreground of atmospheric ancient road-mending wagons, his New Town photographs are seamless with the Old as year by year the once pristine new buildings had absorbed the soot from a myriad of coal fires and the railway tunnelled through its very heart to bond the two in a unifying blackness giving many of his photographs, delighting in the variety of viewpoints imparted by the underlying geology, the character of silhouettes against the sky. Smith’s initial training had been as an architect and he had an affinity for the component stone of buildings, but even after taking up photography he preferred to describe himself as an ‘artist’. He clearly relished the gradations from the richest coal-face blackness of Playfair’s portico of the Royal Scottish Academy that faced his National Gallery to the much subtler smoking imparted to the smooth individual ashlar blocks of Ainslie Place from the harder Craigleith quarry beds and the chiaroscuro imparted by the soot to the infinite varieties of ‘droved ashlar’ effects where the masons’ chisels created geometric textures, all with distinctive now forgotten poetic names, revealed in slanting light as in East Register Street captured by his lens and further dramatized by the filigree shadows of cast ironwork across these scintillating facades. The top notch monolithic columns of Adam’s Piranesian archway to Old College are both admired and recorded with admiration. Oblique views heighten the monumental scale the residents of the Modern Athens successfully strove for in the interiors of the Signet Library and dramatize the Hawksmorian idiosyncrasy of the soaring arch and buttressing scrolls in an oblique view of the porch of Playfair’s St Stephen’s Church. My favourite photograph is an almost abstract study of light and shade on the sheer masonry of a doorway in Elder Street - tragically lost to make way for the St James Centre.
Smith’s cult of timeworn monochrome blackness did not appeal to the early conservationists faced by daunting stonework repair bills and Smith’s survey thus also betrays the first stirrings of stone cleaning efforts that began to reverse this timeworn unity to dramatic effect. The impossibility of cleaning the Scott Monument without damaging its sculptural integrity means that it happily survives as the outsize jet mourning jewel it has now become in a lighter and brighter clean air enacted smokeless Edinburgh. Paint and whitewash had been an earlier solution to the timeworn character and Smith’s photograph of the Broughton Street doorway is the only record of its former whitewashing, increasing the dramatic contrast of his image, but of which no trace remains today after its startlingly pristine restoration nor of, to our eye, its outsize sign-written painted street numbers. We need artists of the calibre of Edwin Smith and Hugh Buchanan to keep us keenly aware and alert to the unique intrinsic character that runs through the New Town in a world of increasing uniformity and blandness.
Smith died of pancreatic cancer, at the height of his powers, just a few years after his Edinburgh series was published, in 1971: his widow Olive Cook bequeathed his negatives to the RIBA in 2002 as his memorial.
Reference: Robert Elwall, Evocations of Place: The photography of
Edwin Smith, 2007, London (RIBA Trust)
Standing on the brow of the hill and looking north as the light begins to go, standing at the corner of Dundas Street and Queen Street, or of Broughton Street and Forth Street, the handsome, familiar streets of the New Town grow dim as the first mist comes up from the river. The white streetlights mounted on the railings flicker into life, illuminating the smoothed or channelled blocks of Craigleith stone. Now would be the time to walk along the slope of the hill, from street to square as the lamps come on, flagstone and cobble underfoot, the curtains not yet drawn, the shutters still open in the wonderful rooms. Glimpses of moulded ceilings and chandeliers, gilded frames and painted canvas in the first floor drawing-rooms behind the long windows. Breakfront bookcases, busts on their cornices. Panelled walls, walls painted in red, coral, muted green. Sometimes there are private worlds behind the astragals, mysteries of the evening city: the second floor flat in Forth Street which seems always to be lit by candlelight. These are the twilight fascinations which occupied the fictional Edwardian detectives - the sense that an endless variety of life, benign or sinister, inhabited the constellations of lit windows which makes up the city.
In this collection of pictures, however, it is as though an evening walk has taken a wrong turning, leading to an alternative, troubled version of the city, in which the familiar has grown strange and disquieting. There are few unshuttered windows here: all blinds are drawn against the observing eye, the viewpoints are unstable, unsettling. Harsh floodlighting, like lightning flashes, flattens the grandeurs of the public buildings, reduces the gallant statues to cut-outs. A cold white light, colder than streetlight or moonlight, sharpens the architectural details. Even the interior pictures are lit by hostile, bouncing sunlight, causing the blinds to be lowered against a daylight so sharp as to take on some of the quality of the white streetlights, of freezing moonlight. In this light, the contents of the fine rooms become wraiths, the bleached-out ghosts of themselves.
Even the ingenious allusion to Cadell’s Orange Blind, about which Duncan Macmillan writes so beautifully in his essay in this catalogue, carries disturbing implications with it. As in so many pictures in this collection, the spectator is shut out, left to wait on a threshold, unable to know what is on the other side of a drawn blind or black-shadowed doorway. Is time consistent on both sides of the window? Or is it still the late 1920s on the other side? Since the blind is drawn down completely, we never see the artist’s rooms behind it - the magical rooms taking their colours from the Ballets Russes: the glimmering chandelier, the black dado, the lavender walls, the turquoise sofa with the scarlet cloak thrown down upon it. The more that these paintings of drawn blinds are considered, the stranger they become: the first floor windows are not seen from the street below, but straight on, as though the viewer was seeing them from the window opposite, as though the viewer was stalking and spying from a rented apartment, meaning no good to the inhabitants of the rooms on the other side of the street.
A similar unsettled viewpoint surveys the series of neo-classical doorways and gateways seen in moonlight or streetlight. In all of these the viewpoint is subverted - an old stratagem of Piranesi’s, but an excellent one - the Broughton Street doorways are seen almost from above, as though the shallow slope of the daytime street has become a precipice in the darkness. The steps up to Old College with its monolithic columns, whether seen by car lights or by a harsh, unnatural moonlight, are viewed from above the level of the architectural plinth, from an angle unreachable by any spectator save in a dream. Darkness gathers and deepens in doorways - the street gate of the High School is turned into the threshold of a secretive, forbidding palace that only exists by night. The lit cavern of the doorway of St Stephen’s church is overwhelming, even though the last light of a spring day is fading in the sky behind its tower. These stark decorations - almost like finished schemes for spectral wall paintings - recall a Scottish precursor of Piranesi - the painter William Gow Ferguson, who worked at the end of the seventeenth century (if the painter of the still lives is indeed the same artist who painted haunted ancient detritus seen in stormy moonlight) and who painted the strangely lit and menacing decorative panels - Medea casting spells amongst broken sculpture - now at Ham House and in Worcester College, Oxford. But who would have the fortitude to live in such a room painted with ruins and shifting perspectives?
Time has passed, and the subjects of these intensely inventive pictures are less mellowed than abraded. This is expressed in the very texture of the paintings themselves: on several - most notably on the representation of Playfair’s blind stone window with its unreachable cast iron balconette, itself a ghost of a window - the surface of the paper is textured and shaded in such a way as to suggest wear, damage, fading. Time has not passed smoothly in these pictures, nor do they anticipate an easy future. They may be marking a quarter millennium since the first development began in Edinburgh north of the loch and on the slopes down towards the river, but their mood is one of disquiet as much as of celebration. The familiar place has become strange, unknowable at nightfall. The ideals of the Enlightenment, as Duncan Macmillan most justly reminds us, have never been more important than they are now, but they have a dwindling number of adherents in this present time. Indeed the presiding spirit guiding Buchanan’s views in the darkened streets, belongs not to the Enlightenment but to the turn of the twentieth century - the elegant, barnstorming, despairing figure of James Pryde - failed prizefighter, extreme bohemian, and superlative, prophetic painter of grand buildings turned spectral in the streets of Nighttown.