When I’m painting something, be it a portrait, landscape, skyscape or cityscape, I like to ‘get under the skin’ and find out what’s going on.
Why are those clouds the shape they are? Why do those bare twigs make the tree appear red? What’s the purpose of that building? And of course, if I’m painting a portrait I take pains to get to know the person who’s sitting.
I’m currently working on a large panoramic painting of The City of London, or The Square Mile. The viewpoint is a more intimate one than we normally see, in the shadow of the skyscrapers on the east of the City looking west over the Bank of England towards Saint Paul’s Cathedral (which, if current building regulations endure, will never be swamped by modernity).
Although I’ve identified practically every building in the panorama, ancient and modern (and indeed buildings whose architects describe as ‘post modern’), it’s impossible to ‘grasp’ what The City really is, other than the trading capital of the world. Really it’s a microcosm of the civilised world. Scratch the surface of any part of it and a fascinating 2000-year history reveals itself.
Visually, one cannot fail to be impressed by the number of church steeples (that building-height regulations have allowed just to poke above the office buildings to the west of The City).
Apparently there were around a hundred churches in the Square Mile before the Great Fire of 1666, and I believe there are about 50 today, most of which were rebuilt after the fire (and most of which are accredited to Sir Christopher Wren). Many had to be rebuilt again, in the Wren style, following destruction in the Blitz. And the stones of one of the churches bombed out by the Nazis, St Mary Aldermanbury, were transported to Fulton, Missouri, where the church was rebuilt as a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. (Churchill’s strong association with this American town goes back to his delivering his famously controversial and prophetic “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton in 1946.)
Even the names of the churches evoque interest and investigation, such as:
St Andrew Undershaft
St Augustine with Saint Faith
St Lawrence Jewry
St Olave Old Jewry
(Four of the above feature in the painting.)
Of course, the ecclesiastical building that dominates the City is Saint Paul’s Cathedral, otherwise I guess the best known is the church of Saint Mary-le-Bow (which features strongly in the middleground of my painting) whose ‘great bell’ we know from the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. And tradition has it that all born within the earshot of the ‘Bow bells’ are true Cockneys.
If you ‘Google’ a Canaletto painting of the City (such as “The Thames from Somerset House Towards the City”) you can indeed see that, before the modern buildings appeared, the City was a veritable forest of steeples. This is evidence that the Square Mile was very heavily populated in centuries past (it’s now sparsely populated outside office hours) and there must have been a church on just about every other street corner, patronised by a predominantly churchgoing population.
The steeples are not as easy to spot today, but look hard enough and they’re still there. Most are, surprisingly, still the beacons of active churches, although some are now residential properties, and some are just the towers/steeples that have been conserved following the demolition (or bombing) of the main body of the church.
I guess there are essentially two ways to plan a modern city: allow the juxtaposition of historic buildings with the modern commercial edifices of glass and steel, as in the City of London, or expel the skyscrapers to the edge of the city, as in Paris. Personally, I love London for what it is, and I love Paris for what it is.
It’s impossible to paint this place and not get passionately involved. I have to agree with Wordsworth:
“Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty . . .”
Composed Upon Westminster Bridge