As a student, I had a passing interest in Art and Art History. It was one of my subjects in my final school exams, chosen more for timetabling reasons than a real desire to interpret the work of the great artists, and develop my own creations. Our art teacher introduced us to famous paintings through slideshows and videos as she encouraged us to examine the various eras, and explore the styles employed by the artists.
Their creations provide valuable insight into how previous generations lived–from portraits of wealthy Flemish merchants posing in their decorated homes to images of French agricultural workers toiling in the fields. They offer a historical perspective on the past, capturing different cultures and ways of life, while also bringing pleasure to the viewer.
But more relevant to our constructed world today, their paintings also deliver a reminder of the strength of great architectural designs and the endurance of buildings. I was reminded of this recently at a visit to “Monet and Architecture” in National Gallery, London. Monet is more often associated with his colourful paintings of water lilies, so it was interesting to view a different perspective on his art.
The water lilies were created in Monet’s home 1 in Giverny, Northern France, where the gardens are one of his enduring oeuvres. He was the prime architect of the design, directing seven gardeners to follow his plans and drawings to create the landscape he desired for the pieces.
One solitary water lily picture in the exhibition is overshadowed by Monet’s attention to detail and interest in buildings. The paintings include numerous views of London, Paris and Venice, focusing on iconic structures reflected in different lights. They provide a window into life at the turn of the 1900’s– from the coal workers in the Paris docks to the top-hatted gentry watching Bastille Day celebrations from a balcony in the city2.
Monet lived in London in the early 1900’s, basing himself in a covered terrace at one of the city’s hospitals. This gave him a great vantage point to observe life along the Victoria Embankment3, a walkway completed in 1870 which stretches along the River Thames from the Palace of Westminster to the City of London. The Palace of Westminster and the Elizabeth Tower (affectionately known as Big Ben) was rebuilt in 1876 due to extensive fire damage4, so both were relatively new additions to the capital city when Monet painted them.
Monet captures the Westminster buildings, bridges and the river in a range of guises–cloaked in fog and smoke or bathed in the twilight sun–and it is striking how enduring and relevant the images still are, over a hundred years later. In a city of modern steel and glass skyscrapers, with nicknames such as the Gherkin, the Cheese Grater and the Walkie Talkie5. These are all testimonies to the great architects and builders of earlier generations that buildings like Westminster and St Paul’s Cathedral have stood the test of time and tower, at least figuratively, over the new contenders as London landmarks.
Thanks to representations from artists such as Monet, we get an insight into the lifecycle of our buildings. They provide a good reference point to their original designs and usage, as highlighted by the current major renovations of the Elizabeth Tower in London. The restorers have referenced a watercolour from 1838 painted by the tower’s architect Charles Barry in order to restore elements of the clock tower to his original design6. The new look will be revealed in 2021 when the scaffolding is due to come down and regular chimes will be heard again over London.
When future generations look back at the art and photos of buildings from today, what will they see? Will our modern structures reflect favourably on our endeavours to work with the environment, shaping our homes, cities and surroundings to benefit all individuals? Only time will tell. Until then, the pen remains with today’s building professionals and architects to tell our story–and we hope they will do it justice.