The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh 2017
THE ENLIGHTENMENT IN STONE
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.
Hugh Buchanan and Northern Light
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.
Hugh Buchanan, Edwin Smith & an earlier anniversary
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)
The Scotsman June 21st 2017
Edinburgh’s civic masterpiece is celebrated in this wonderful show, writes Duncan Macmillan
Hugh Buchanan: New Town
The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh *****
The achievements cities claim for themselves are generally by proxy: not theirs, but their sons’ and daughters’. For a city to be able to claim a major and enduring achievement on its own as a corporate body is rare indeed. Edinburgh is such a rarity however. The New Town – or New Towns as it turned out after almost 70 years of building – really was the creation of the city itself, initiated by its visionary Lord Provost, William Drummond. You wouldn’t know it, for the city has looked askance at its creation ever since. Begun in 1767, this is the quarter millennium of the start of this stupendous project, but where do we see the city celebrating its own greatest achievement? Nowhere. No fanfares, so far at least, and what has been done to draw the attention of visitors, to offer interpretation, or clear the traffic that chokes the New Town and is shaking its buildings to pieces? Nothing that I have noticed. So far it seems, this major anniversary of our philosophic city, the embodiment of the Enlightenment in stone, its architecture proposing an ideal of human order in the wider order of nature, will pass unremarked by the city that created it. Indeed, if at all, this notable anniversary has been marked by the council’s approval of the Turd on the site of the St James Centre. Even worse than the grim monstrosity it will replace, the building is an insult to all architecture, but especially to the New Town that it will dominate.
In the absence of any civic celebration, the Scottish Gallery has taken the initiative and has asked Hugh Buchanan to mark this notable date with a collection of paintings of Georgian Edinburgh. Buchanan has always painted architecture and watercolour has been his chosen medium, but with these watercolours, some on a near monumental scale, he has responded to the challenge of Edinburgh’s Georgian heritage with works that have a new clarity and grandeur.
One group of paintings are superb studies of sunlit Georgian interiors. Their opulence might perhaps tend to confirm the City’s long-standing prejudice against the New Town as a bastion of privilege. But that is quite wrong. The majority of its living spaces are much more modest, but, at the city’s far-sighted behest, all are characterised, nevertheless, by the same harmonious proportions and the same access to essential, health-giving light and space. From the outside, however, because of their uniformity, nothing betrays the relative wealth of those who live behind the facades. It is egalitarian.
What Buchanan captures most brilliantly is that pervading harmony of proportion and the importance of light. He does this by focusing in the majority of his pictures, not on daylight, but on artificial light. Artificial light is definitively modern and so brings it all into the present. These paintings, therefore, are not, like Prince Charles’s Poundbury, an essay in Georgian nostalgia. They are an assertion that the ideals we have inherited from the Enlightenment, embodied in the stone of these buildings that surround us, are every bit as pertinent now as they were then.
Buchanan also acknowledges those who have gone before him. The great Colourist, FCB Cadell, was both inhabitant and painter of the New Town. He understood and celebrated its beauty and its vision of light and harmony, perhaps nowhere so brilliantly as in his painting The Orange Blind. It is a picture of the interior of his flat in Ainslie Place lit by the light blazing through an orange blind drawn against the late evening sun of midsummer. In a series of pictures, Buchanan takes Cadell’s theme of the orange blind, but he sees it not from the interior, but from outside, glowing with light from within. This displays the proportions of the window based on the Golden Section and echoed in the astragals, but any austerity that suggests is then offset by the flowing silhouette of a cast iron balcony. It suggests Rothko as much Cadell, but really it is pure Buchanan. He creates similar studies in near abstract harmony with paintings of the portico of Surgeons’ Hall, for instance, lit from within, or a detail of the portico of the RSA building, also lit from within. In fact he turns details of several building into marvellous autonomous compositions. Most striking of all such close focus images perhaps is his superb, large painting of the steps of Robert Adam’s grand entrance to Edinburgh University’s Old College. The building is a temple of learning and learning has left its mark. Buchanan records how the steps, once perfectly regular, are now irregular, worn away over the centuries by countless students’ feet. It is a picture the University really ought to own.
If Buchanan asserts modernity by choosing to see buildings lit by artificial light, they are otherwise in darkness. This device conveniently makes the all-pervading car invisible. (Other great cities with which Edinburgh likes to compare itself manage to remove the cars altogether, however.) But again defying any accusation that he has left out that most ubiquitous symbol of modernity for the sake of nostalgia, Buchanan has created a series of very bold compositions which incorporate cars directly. He has painted Charlotte Square, St Stephen’s Church and other buildings all reflected in the shiny paintwork of parked cars. The results are strikingly modern as indeed is all the work in this truly remarkable show.
Scottish Review of Books – August 12, 2017 by David Black
Two celebrations were wrapped up as one in the recent exhibition of Hugh Buchanan’s watercolours of Georgian Edinburgh in the Scottish Gallery. The New Town was born 250 years ago, its birth certificate being the ground plan by 28-year-old James Craig, nephew of Augustan poet James Thomson.
Craig was also closely acquainted with the great Augustan architectural dynasty, the Adams, while John Adam advised the Lord Provost on the selection of his competition entry. The other celebration is that of the Scottish Gallery, founded 175 years ago as Aitken Dott’s. Despite several changes of address and its variant name this has always been a much loved New Town fixture for those who recognise a good painting and appreciate fine ceramics and jewelry.
Buchanan’s haunting, lyrical images could not have found a better setting. They were clearly never intended to be orthodox portrayals of Edinburgh’s well-ordered classical buildings and palace-fronted tenements, for this is a civic psycho-drama recalling the grand guignol interior tableaux of James Pryde or the dreamily composed high-ceilinged salons of Scottish Colourist FCB Cadell. There are, for sure, no comforting cloud-scudded urban vistas in the style of Sandby, Nasmyth, or engraver Thomas Shepherd.
The New Town may be a rationally planned civic masterpiece of the post-Culloden Enlightenment, but shades of Hogg’s Justified Sinner and Stevenson’s Mr Hyde linger yet in its elegant shadows. Buchanan, in some cases, imposes a contemporary twist, presenting a number of his streetscapes as images reï¬‚ected on the bonnets and windscreens of parked cars. This is, after all, the eighteenth century viewed from a twenty-first century vantage point.
Several paintings break the New Town theme, however, if not by much. Robert Adam’s Old College on South Bridge is a quintessential part of that ‘kind of revolution’ which he and his brother James declared in their joint folio publication Works in Architecture, while Playfair’s Surgeons’ Hall provides evidence that the Southside, too, had its place in the development of Neo-classicism, as did Thomas Hamilton’s Dean Orphanage, halfway to Blackhall and leafy suburbia, and now part of the Gallery of Modern Art.
‘Tail lights, South Bridge’ presents the facade of the Old College in a contemporary context, the rain-soaked black stone of the facade reï¬‚ecting the red glow of car brake lights. The twenty-two foot high column monoliths – once blonde white and closer to the cream Pentelic marble of Athens than North European slate-black – were raised and placed with much ingenuity after being hauled by sixteen horses apiece from Craigleith. Some feared this might test the North Bridge to destruction. The trepidation was understandable; the first North Bridge had collapsed in 1769, killing five people, and causing its architect, William Mylne, to ï¬‚ee to the debatable lands of Georgia and South Carolina rather than face the wrath of the Scottish courts.
The Old College may not be in the New Town, but it has a happy circular link with the Dott family, founders of the Scottish Gallery. The Huguenot D’Otts had settled in Anstruther and Cupar in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and by the eighteenth many were living in Edinburgh. Aitken Dott, the framer, gilder, and colourman who, as a sideline, offered hanging space to his artist-clients, established the business in 1842. Then aged 27, he was the son of a stone mason, Henry Dott, while his grandfather had been employed as a stone carver on the Old College, and probably took part in â€“ or at least witnessed â€“ the arrival of the aforementioned Craigleith columns. The family link with Old College was rekindled 150 years later, when Aitken Dott’s grandson, Norman, became one of the world’s first Professors of Neurosurgery at his alma mater.
There is a quirky hint of that medical legacy in a carefully composed image ‘Old College Steps’. These must have felt the impress of generations of collegiate feet, Darwin’s, Carlyle’s, Stevenson’s, and Conan Doyle’s, as well as Norman Dott’s. The author of Sherlock Holmes, as it happens, has already made an appearance in the Buchanan oeuvre, being featured in his 2015 National Library of Scotland exhibition, Hugh Buchanan paints the John Murray Archive. In a chiarascuro Old College image which sears itself into the mind, a sharp shadow cuts obliquely across the end of each step, evoking a set of surgeon’s scalpels, or perhaps – for those studying law or philosophy – Occam’s razor.
Back in the New Town, variations on the theme of the anthemion patterned ‘Playfair balconies’ of Alva Street and Darnaway Street raise an awkward question. Why Playfair? I once hauled a section of such a balcony from the rubble of East Register Street, which was built seventeen years before Playfair’s birth. It is now in the Museum of Scotland â€“ possibly the sole architectural object by Adam in the national collection of his native land, which tells us something about the low regard in which we hold our true heroes.
But the anthemion’s authorship is a minor quibble: the Adam brothers, after all, were copyists too, and possibly derived this particular design from a sketch sent to them from Rome by the antiquarian James Byres. Besides, Playfair made liberal use of the anthemion motif in his own work, as evidenced by Buchanan’s detail of stonework in ‘The Royal Scottish Academy’, featuring a bas-relief anthemion between two Doric columns. An anthemion balcony also appears in ‘Playfair Window’, a variant series of external views culminating in one with an orange blind pulled down, a bar of yellow light just above the sill. This is presented as a homage to Cadell’s ‘The Orange Blind’, now in Kelvingrove, which shows the interior of the artist’s Ainslie Place flat with his favourite model, Miss Don Wauchope, in her signature wide-brimmed black hat. This time Buchanan keeps us outside, not quite looking in, evoking a sense of an imagined past from which we are forever excluded.
It is tempting to look for underlying meanings and curious moments of revelation in this bifurcated series of images in which all exteriors are shown in twilight, or enveloped in darkness, while interiors have sunlight streaming in. Not all is gloom, however. Dundas House, now the Royal Bank of Scotland in St Andrew’s Square, is flooded in artificial light, the statue of the Earl of Hopetoun and his horse silhouetted before it, suggesting, perhaps, a scene from Don Giovanni. Could this be Buchanan’s subtle nod to yet another anniversary, that of the Edinburgh Festival in 1947? The black columns of Surgeon’s Hall, which, perhaps appropriately, are opposite the Festival Theatre, likewise affect theatricality against the inner portico’s suffused artificial lighting.
The all-pervasive sense of drama is by no means monopolised by grand buildings. In ‘At the Dentist’ the artist leads us towards a typical New Town doorway, its lunette fanlight set over a glazed door and dimly lit from behind, eerily redolent, perhaps, of a scene from the 1955 Ealing classic The Ladykillers. Another doorway, this time in demi-monde Broughton Street – ‘The Barony’ had long been associated with religious dissenters and witches – looms out of the darkness as a spectacular fragment from ancient Greece in the form of a double doorway with doric columns and laurel wreath entablature.
If the underlying message of this exhibition is meant to be that Edinburgh’s Enlightenment is now an Endarkenment, the point is well made. Today’s Edinburgh is a city with a council which seems happy to mark a quarter millennium of Augustan civic glory not by celebrating buildings, but by handing out planning consents to demolish and desecrate them. What was once, in the era of planning theorist and environmentalist Patrick Geddes, a city in evolution with a living resident community, is now one in disintegration, reduced to a list of opportunities for predatory developers and vanity-fuelled architects who seem, for the most part, to regard the heritage, and indeed the traditional resident community, as a nuisance.
Examples of the defilement of a once noble vision crowd in fast and thick. Consent has been given for the construction of a ‘copper spiral’ hotel next door to Robert Adam’s Register House, the developer TIAA being a US pension fund for teachers and professors founded in 1917 by Andrew Carnegie which prides itself on ‘doing the right thing’. It beggars belief that a design which would probably have a problem getting a planning consent on Las Vegas Strip, and which the writer Candia McWilliam has suggested ‘resembles nothing so much as what citizens are coyly enjoined to pick up after their dogs’ is part of a commercial scheme in receipt of a £61.4 million public subsidy.
Whatever Carnegie might think about his name being taken in vain in that particular case, he would certainly have been incandescent at the council’s disposal of a tract of land adjacent to the French-renaissance Library, which he endowed in 1887. He paid for an area behind the library to protect its light, air, and views. In 2002 there were wonderful plans to improve the building, which was recommended for A listing. In 2004 Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO World City of Literature, and all seemed set fair, but the council delayed the listing recommendation by fifteen years, taking the opportunity meanwhile to sell the land off for yet another hotel development.
Most egregious of all is the bid to add “Mickey Mouse ears” modernist extensions to one of the world’s most significant neo-classical public buildings – Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School, a gateway of which appears in Buchanan’s exhibition. The intention is to create an ‘international luxury hotel’ for a super-rich elite whom the end-user’s New York-based CEO, Sonia Cheng, describes as “affluential explorers”. Strangely, she forgot to mention her Royal High School interest in an interview in Focus Magazine: Our essence is an all-embracing commitment to “a sense of place.” Our entire team devotes itself to immersing in the local culture of each market, then shaping something precious and unique that celebrates each city.’
Edinburgh is now a city ashamed of its history largely because of its failure to live up to it. In 1759, at the laying of the foundation stone of today’s City Chambers, David Hume’s playwright cousin, John, declared with unbridled optimism ‘Scotland’s youth salutes the dawning of a brighter morn’ as the ‘Last of the Arts, proud Architecture comes, to grace EDINA with majestic domes, BRITONS this day is laid a PRIMAL STONE.’
This may help to explain why there has been no official attempt to recognise the anniversary of a triumph of enlightened civic planning which was, after all, an inspiration for Catherine the Great’s St Petersburg, as well as a spectacular city on the Potomac River, Washington DC, first promoted in The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser by a ‘Citizen of the World’, Falkirk-born and Georgetown-based merchant, George Walker.
There will be no official exhibition in the manner of Dream City, held at the City Art Centre in 1993, and no sponsored publication. True, in 2014, there were Anthony Lewis’s Builders of Edinburgh New Town and Alexander McCall Smith’s A Work of Beauty, followed in 2015 by the anthology Edinburgh New Town: A Model City. As for 2017, the 250th anniversary year, there is nothing of such note. Instead, we are promised a light show. For a gleam of enlightenment in the current Scottish Endarkenment we must look to A White House of Stone by William Seale, architectural historian to the White House Historical Association. This wonderful publication tells the story of the Edinburgh stonemasons who took their tools and their skills across the Atlantic and set about constructing the President’s Mansion on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. We should be grateful for Dr Seale’s insightful enthusiasm, as we should be, too, to Hugh Buchanan.
The Scotsman June 1st 2017
Celebrating the classical heart of a great city built by a ‘mad god’
by Hugh Buchanan
I was sitting in a bus on South Bridge outside Edinburgh University’s Old College. It was early December 2015 and the driving rain from an easterly gale was soaking Robert Adam’s triumphal entrance. The drenched masonry and columns, normally subtle shades of sludge green and dove grey had been turned for the moment, by the rainwater, into a monumental dark mirror. Reflected in this ancient Roman grandeur were the red traffic lights and tail lights of the stationary traffic. I had been asked six months before by the Scottish Gallery to paint a series of paintings celebrating 250 years of the New Town and was running out of time. I had been wondering how to tackle the project in a way that was relevant to today. Here was my first subject.
I soon realised that artificial light, be it floodlights or traffic lights, has transformed the way we see the city so I wasn’t long in finding other subjects. Indeed it is hard to find a building of any importance now that is not lit up at night. It has provided a drama that was unavailable to previous generations. The Dean Institute, Surgeons Hall and Dundas House were soon added to my list.
But they were not all to be night scenes. One thing I knew I wasn’t going to do was views of George Street. How do you handle the cars and the general street clutter? Rows of Range Rovers and Fords were never part of my agenda. However I realised that if I got close enough to them I could, like the American photorealists, use them as mirrors. An added benefit was that I could legitimately use the colours of the cars in the reflections. In this way I described Regent Bridge, Charlotte Square and St Stephen’s Church. This is in fact how we so often see the New Town, glimpsed in a fragmented fashion as we nervously check for parking tickets. Indeed the main hazard, as I peered intently at the windscreens of parked cars, was that many rather angry people took me for a plain clothes traffic warden.
I had tackled light outside buildings but there was also light from within. We have all peered up at New Town windows before the curtains are drawn, wondering who on earth lives there and what do they do ? That slight sense of exclusion is a very Edinburgh sensation and I have sought to capture that feeling in a series of paintings of partially drawn blinds and wrought iron balconies – with particular reference to Cadell’s famous painting The Orange Blind. Although there is undoubtedly a sense of elegant reserve about the New Town it is, in its conception, a fundamentally democratic model. The pedimented street fronts, from the grandeur of Charlotte Square to the relative simplicity of Forth Street are not, as their critics claim, elitist. Quite the opposite. They declare that everyone lives in a palace. Not the palace of a tyrant but a palace of the demos, enlightened people sharing an Enlightenment ideal under one long roof. Likewise the shared gardens and the intermixing of tenement flats with grand mansions in streets like Great King Street mean that it is impossible to tell the rich from the (relatively) poor.
You don’t have to live in the New Town to feel its influence. Although its interiors are lavish, the decoration spills out onto the streets in abundance. So, even on a trip to the dentist in a New Town crescent we encounter countless classical signals in the wrought iron and the stonework that tell us that this city was built by, as Hugh MacDiarmid put it, by a ‘Mad God’.
Nor is there any diminution in the quality of detail as the New Town begins to peter out towards the top of Leith Walk. Walk down Broughton Street and on your left is a handsome wreathed double doorway, immortalised by the photographer Edwin Smith, and every bit as grand as anything in Heriot Row. The New Town finishes with a flourish with an exquisite curved colonnade on the corner of Annandale Street. It is all a little sudden. It feels as if the architect intended to continue all the way to Prestonpans. And why not?
Current architectural thinking tends to endorse the theories of the Czech modernist Adolf Loos: that “ornament is a crime,” and yet the ornaments of classical Edinburgh – the columns the friezes, the wreaths, the key patterns in the railings, are more than decoration, they all mean something. They are the Spartan poetry of a stern, rational east coast Scotland. The Spartan poetry that tells you that everyone, so long as they put salt in their porridge, is a potential Greek or Roman Hero.
A speaker at planning conference at the Royal High School last year declared that all classical buildings are “soaked in blood” symbolic as they are of colonial oppression and slavery. This is absurd on so many levels particularly when we consider the enlightenment ideals that created the New Town and the Royal High School .When taken in conjunction with the views of the Bauhaus, currently fashionable in Planning Departments, that even pitched roofs are elitist because along with their cornices or guttering they “represent a crown”, it is not hard to understand the threat under which our heritage finds itself.
It is modernism with its leaky roofs and arid doctrines that has failed us. Let’s make the next new town we build a classical one.