Thursday, March 21, 2013


In his book, Medieval Architectural Drawing, in the first chapter titled Stone-carvers: Identities and Drawings, Arnold Pacey ponders the possibilities of the impacts drawings might have had on the stone carvings in the cathedrals, and uses these ideas to interpret that various works comparatively. The extract included here shows an interesting analysis of the subject. The position is different in that it uses lived experience to assess the changes in the appearance of things, identifying how one might think, feel, see and act can change outcomes. The text acknowledges the presence of flesh and blood in the production of things rather than merely rely on ordinary abstract notions of intellectualism and academia: like Pevsner’s point on sketchbooks, as if these were simply so. Without ever knowing, he poetically and somewhat fancifully establishes the notion of stone-carvers: ‘returning with their sketchbooks full of . . . careful drawings of realistic French capitals, which they reproduced when they came back’ (p.17) - as if this was necessarily so (as Wittgenstein said of the often repeated scientific predictive boast of the new discovery in five or ten years’ time). The Pacey text describes how a hand drawing can inform the eye and vice versa; and how the process is selective. It is an important piece that needs thoughtful reverie.

The relevance for architects needs to be noted. Our era has discarded drawing in favour of the pushing of buttons and the touching of surfaces rather than involving a hand delineating what the eye sees and what the body feels, with the use of some substance that can leave a mark on a surface as guided by the body. What are we missing by this change? Did the substance and surface, and the body, have an impact on outcomes? Does this change start to explain why our architecture has become cold and intellectual, rational in its limited approach to references and outcomes, even when extreme and quirky? I am thinking of O. Gehry’s inspirational crumpled paper. Are we burdened with the limitations of a copying-like process that extracts more and more from the origins to become schematic versions of a schematic version of some vague original concept? Pacey’s perceptions that use Givens’ inspired subtle observations need to be reviewed in the context of how the architect works today. Is drawing an essential part of the process - visual thinking? What are the implications of this change? How can feeling best be incorporated in this process and product?

Does Pacey’s analysis explain why copies of other architect’s works, or buildings inspired by another’s idea, say, for an easy example, the ‘Masters,’ Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, are always so poor, weak, a shell or fragment of the original source - hollow? Does the copy problem - entropy - explain the demise of the International style that became more and more copies of copies - shallow, thin, without any feeling for person or place? Is this the problem that we have returned to today? The text needs consideration and review. We must become aware of what our technologies are doing to us, indeed, have done to us, if we are to produce work that embodies substance and quality, depth and life, or else we are just walking, working, in the dark.

Pacey has shown us something else too: our feeling and our response to things can be used to gauge outcomes of other eras; can help us understand other times and processes because we are no different to these folk. Our manipulations, the sense and feeling for and of chalk, stone and chisel give the same response to the question, ‘what must I do?’ as others experienced some hundreds of years ago. While we like to gloss over things with our world view that sees our time as the most progressive, the best ever, the cleverest ever, the smartest ever - that sees ourselves as uniquely different - we fail to ever contemplate that in their unique context, other times may have been richer and more complicated and advanced than ours - without any qualifications or ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. We may be less; worse off. Just look at the work of the mediaeval carvers and masons and ask the question: could we do this today? Look at Chartres. Does our work hold such depth, relevance and substance? It is not a matter of reconstructing or reproducing these things of other eras. It is not about copying these things. It has to do with finer, more delicate issues of art: feeling and form. Our arrogance, like that expressed most blatantly by our politicians, seems to know no bounds or shame. It knows no limits: we are the greatest ever: I am. We stride out blindly as we trample on others and on other times with our total, bold, digital disregard: with the finger in the air.

We really have much to learn, the most basic aspect of which is humility, honesty and a trust in our feelings, for we can use these to sense those of others, to be aware of their being, both in the present and past: to be responsible - able to respond. It will surely improve our architecture, and our wellbeing too.

Arnold Pacey, Medieval Architectural Drawing, Tempus Publishing, Gloucestershire, 2007.


It is certainly possible that English craftsmen had travelled and had sketched carvings at Reims (and perhaps at the Sainte Chapelle in Paris). However, Jean Givens makes the important point that no matter how much carvers copied work by colleagues, there is a considerable difference between a carver copying a sculpture and copying a living plant. Looking at a living plant, a sculptor starts with an immense amount of visual information from which to select details for making an image in stone. The leaves of the plant will be traversed by more veins than can be shown in stone, while the different textures of the top and underside of a leaf may have to be merely implied. Copying a sculpted plant, though, the carver is presented with pre-selected information. Somebody else has already made decisions about what can be represented in stone and what has to be ignored.

Thus, Givens concludes, the results of different craftsmen studying nature will be much more varied than if they were studying other craftsmen’s carvings. If carvers always copy other carvings (or drawings of carvings) there is a loss of accuracy and detail each time. Yet, as Givens observes, the Southwell carvings are often more accurate than those at Reims, and are ‘more descriptive’. This ‘suggest the observation of life rather than exclusively the copying of images.’ Plant species can more often be identified in the carvings at Southwell than at Reims or Westminster.

This conclusion can seem to imply that the Southwell carvers worked directly from plant specimens. However, ‘observation of life’ by artists is not a matter of one-off inspection. Repeated attempts are usually made to draw or model the object of interest, and in each attempt the detail of the object will be better understood and different decisions will be made about what to illustrate and what to ignore. Therefore, in addition to drawings made at other buildings where similar carving was done, the Southwell carvings definitely show evidence of drawing or carving from life.

Examples of masons’ drawings that survive on the continent are often drawn using a stylus or leadpoint, to be inked in later, and may be on poor quality parchment, much reused. But because parchment was expensive, it is possible that a stone-carver would go through the preliminary sketching phase using other media, perhaps working in chalk on a board or slate. Thus although drawings on parchment were certainly used at this time, there is a likelihood that other media also were used for rough sketches.

Despite such considerations, there have been several distinguished writers on medieval sculpture who have argued that the reason why no drawings seem to survive for carvings such as those at Southwell, is that sculptors made no drawings. They carved directly onto the stone. To anybody personally accustomed to making drawings themselves, this view is not really credible. A skilled carver working directly on stone could certainly produce impressive works of art, but the creative achievement would usually be a response to the material and we would not expect naturalism. This latter kind of art arises from an intimacy of observation that comes from repeated attempts tp sketch or model a particular subject, and from the visual thinking stimulated by drawing. It even seems possible that the outburst of naturalistic carving that arose in the thirteenth century was made possible because more drawing was being done than earlier in the Middle Ages.

NOTE: 29 October 2014
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