The Lineaments of Light
For his new exhibition Hugh Buchanan returns to a subject of inexhaustible fascination for him: rooms and the spaces between them in historic houses in England, Scotland and France from Blair Castle in Perthshire to the Palace of Versailles. After exploring the aesthetic and expressive appeal of libraries and archives, rich and dense subjects which preoccupied Buchanan in his 2008/2010 exhibitions, now it is spaces occupied by paintings which provide the chief impetus: pictures within pictures as a springboard for dizzying perspectives and a virtuoso handling of the properties or lineaments of light. With a focus now on doorways and corridors – those critical points of intersection, as classical dramatists so well understood, where protagonists meet and exchange stories to move the plot forwards – Buchanan revels in the ingenious ways classical architects have created for their patrons complex schemes to envelop empty space, just as musicians create everywhere sounds to capture silence.
At Wilton House, Wiltshire, Buchanan has caught the contrasting play of light in views through the Double and Single Cube Rooms, adopting a similar approach with enfilading rooms at Kedleston. At Hopetoun in West Lothian, light filtering through a blind into the Red Dining Room breaks down into a spectrum of subtly differentiated shadows and reflecting surfaces in which detail recedes to make way for a unity of mood and atmosphere. Responding to a fitting musical reference (After the recital) Buchanan explores a similar setting at Hardwick Hall, where he deploys a moodier palette to do justice to walls closely hung with verdure tapestries.
Central to his treatment of light is the role played in so many of his favourite buildings by the formal or ‘picture’ staircase. It is here that light, falling from a high, often invisible source, spreads most eloquently across stairs which rise to meet it, a challenge the artist takes on in the exhibition’s most extensive sequence of watercolours devoted to the great staircase at Blair Castle. At Ham House a palpably haunting atmosphere enveloping the Jacobean staircase is evoked with a darker palette, replacing the need to suggest movement.
With the possible exception of the magisterial Tutorial, Hopetoun, where attention to detail in the handling ofchairs, pictures, wallpaper is central to the painting’srationale, pattern and detail dissolving into atmospherebecome the real subject in Buchanan’s work. Even ininteriors as sumptuous as those at Tyninghame, atreasure house of paintings, sculpture and objets d’art,the overall mise en scène translates into a geometry ofshadows created by softly filtered daylight, evocative inits richness of those oratories at Palermo embellished bythe great stuccatore Serpotta with a seething multitudeof figures in half- and full-relief.
Adventurously varied, dramatic and expressive as are the effects Hugh Buchanan has achieved with these newest watercolours, some (such as The Staircase, Blair Castle I) in an exceptionally large format, the techniques he has deployed in their execution conform still to a canon of purity which might have surprised even a Cotman or a Girtin. On past occasions, for instance, he has sometimes used body colour to create highlights but his present practice is when required to apply a rough hogshair brush or fine sandpaper for such purposes. Only the revealed light of the paper itself – than which, Buchanan claims, ‘nothing is brighter’ – will now satisfy him.
HUGH BUCHANAN was born in Edinburgh in 1958 and educated at Edinburgh College of Art. After completing post-graduate studies ‘with distinction’ in 1981, he was awarded travel scholarships to the Middle East and, later, North Italy and the Balkans and he has travelled regularly throughout Europe to visit and paint in watercolour buildings and interiors from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Over several years he worked on commissions for the National Trust and in 1987 was invited by the Prince of Wales to paint a series of interiors of Balmoral, subsequently completing a further sequence at Highgrove in 1994. In 1988 he was commissioned by the House of Commons to paint four interiors in the Palace of Westminster.
Hugh Buchanan’s paintings are in the Collections of HM The Queen, HRH Queen Elizabeth the late Queen Mother, HRH The Prince of Wales, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Edinburgh City Art Galleries, the Palace of Westminster, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Aberdeen, the Bank of Scotland, the Royal Bank of Scotland, Flemings Bank, Deutsche Bank, the National Trust for Scotland and the National Trust for England. In 2002 he was commissioned by the House of Lords to paint the lying in state of the Queen Mother at the Palace of Westminster. In 1987 he was one of Ten British Watercolourists shown at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao, Spain. In 1991 he exhibited at the Lincoln Centre, New York. In 1998 five works by Hugh Buchanan were included in the exhibition Princes as Patrons: The Art Collections of the Princes of Wales from the Renaissance to the Present Day shown at the National Museum and Gallery, Cardiff. In 2005/6 his paintings featured in Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh and Queen’s Gallery, London.
In 1994 Hugh Buchanan was given a major retrospective by hr National Trust at Petworth House. His work has featured in two limited edition publications with accompanying texts by peter Davisdson: The Eloquence of Shadows (1994) and Winter Light (2010). Hugh Buchanan has been represented since 1985 by Francis Kyle Gallery where he has held thirteen one-man exhibitions between 1986 and 2010, the most recent being Words and Deeds: Library and Archive Paintings, which also received a public showing at the Old Town House, University of Aberdeen in 2009. In spring 2000 Buchanan was a major participant in The Art of Memory: contemporary painters in search of Marcel Proust, a theme exhibition which with new contributions by the artists participating travelled to the National Theatre on the South Bank in January 2001. He took part in the theme exhibitions Roma in 2003, Lair of the Leopard (2005), Everyone Sang: a view of Siegfried Sassoon and his world (2006), РОДИНА: contemporary painters from the West winter in Russia (2008) and That gong-tormented sea: contemporary painters pursue the idea and reality of Byzantium (2009).
We truly feel in these Buchanan book-pictures that we are in the presence, not just of a master technician (and what a technique! What courage, to undertake the huger of these exhibits with the ever-risky watercolour medium!) but also of an artist at the very peak of his prime…These paintings depict, with preternatural skill, not merely what libraries look like, but what they are for. They are not simply paintings of the outsides of books, as they at first appear. They are suggestive of the reasons the books have been written, and the libraries built to house them.
A.N. WILSON (2008)
Hugh Buchanan is a painter of unusual lyricism. In the face of his watercolours, whole stanzas from my favourite poets tend to enter into my mind. As in the best poetry, the painter’s perceptions are accurate but not literal. In Buchanan’s works we generally see fragments of architecture from indoors or out, often juxtaposed these days with strange festoonings…
The artist has an acute awareness of history as well as a strong sense of the spirit of place. While architectural styles and details provide an accurate key to the former, the latter belongs more properly to the realm of intuition and feeling…Hugh Buchanan’s watercolours are poems whose real subject is our heritage . The time they embrace is neither strictly in the present nor the past. Rather, their chronology and special fall of light emanate from the frozen moments of memories, dreams, and imaginings. Here is romantic art based, as often as not, on elements or objects drawn form baroque building.
Buchanan is a rare artist, not just in style but subject matter. Although his manner of handling materials is idiosyncratic and unusual, his subject matter is much less personal in a direct sense that that of most living artist. Architecture is the recurrent motif which triggers his meditations on nations and their histories.
GILES AUTY (1994)
Like Adam, Hugh Buchanan is fascinated by the way buildings can express movement, preferring the trumpets and drums of Vanbrugh to the polite minuets of the Palladians. A constant sense of drama characterises his compositions, never taken from the obvious viewpoint, but confronting problems of light and perspective head on… His feeling for the theatre – and the narrow divide between life on stage and off – may also explain the sumptuous curtains, the damask backdrops to still lifes, the vistas down corridors that speak of entries and exits, past and to come. Always there is a powerful understanding of the three-dimensional, sculptural nature of great architecture: Eliot’s ‘inexplicable splendours of Ionian white and gold’. But so often too, there is an elegiac note, probing the sense of loss in the prismatic light filtering into a shuttered library, or a ghost-like ancestor reflected in a rococo pier glass.
GERVASE JACKSON-STOPS (1986)
Great Britain is unique in Europe in not having been invaded or fought over for centuries, and thus retaining undisturbed a wealth of old libraries and ancient archives in country houses, university colleges, cathedrals and churches. Many of these places are known only to their owners or visiting scholars. This ‘forgotten’ or ‘secret’ quality is part of their magic. They have a distinctive aura of ancient peace, the home of memories where the past seems more real than the present, places where silence reigns, broken only by the buzz of an insect waking from hibernation and dust motes floating in a ray of light from opened shutters at the window. The ancient calm is palpable.
Such is the subject which Hugh Buchanan has tackled in his new exhibition, developing the theme of his previous Library Paintings to focus in detail on the contents of muniment rooms, Charter rooms and old libraries. The result is a group of striking and original still lives composed of paper, vellum, engravings, music scores, seals, red tape, string and crumbling bindings; they form vivid private glimpses into the past, into the undisturbed antiquarian sub-strata of British civilization.
These are wonderful pictures with something of the arresting simplicity of Spanish seventeenth-century still lifes. In place of blanched asparagus, onions and glazed pots, we see here sheets and rolls of paper, marbled covers, stiff string and vivid pink ribbon. Old documents could have a monochrome quality, but in Hugh Buchanan’s vision this is far from the case. There are considerable variations of tone and colour: in the paper of different types and dates, some brown with the passage of ages, the outer sheafs grey with ingrained dust, the insides still pristine white. Some documents are caught in shade, some transfigured by rays of light, with the shadows of glazing bars, or brass bookcase lattice falling across the pages. The yellows of oak shelves and the reds and chocolate of mahogany surfaces; the mulberry ink of duty stamps and the crimson of morocco book labels add flashes of unexpectedly vivid colour.
The compositions are masterly, often almost abstract, with fanned arrays of long-forgotten correspondence, neat stacks of ribboned deeds, or just the crumpled corners of an old account book and layered glimpses of eighteenth-century plans, shown in close-up focus like a zoom lens. An Accumulation of Engravings showing stacked tube-like rolls is a virtuoso exercise in perspective and foreshortening, light and shade. The brittle, battered, crumpled qualities of antique archives are here miraculously caught in water colour on paper.
The originality of these remarkable watercolour paintings, a study of paper on paper, is captured in the titles: Dead Flies, Dust and Tax Demands; Notes and Queries; Sasine no. 314; Marbled Packets. They strike a particular historical chord. Some of the finest set-pieces were composed and painted in the Charter Rooms at Drumlanrig Castle and Traquair House in Scotland, but Worcester College Library, Oxford, St. Paul’s Cathedral Library, The Soane Museum, Harewood House, and the New Register House at Edinburgh are evidence of a nation-wide geographical spread.
Not the least of the qualities to be seen in Hugh Buchanan’s work is its clarity. The writing on old letters, music scores, the charges of coats of arms, the architectural detail in Piranesi engravings or plans of the Edinburgh New Town is all perfectly represented and can be read and identified despite foreshortened perspective or play of light and gloom of shadows.
Hugh Buchanan’s is an exciting, original and highly impressive personal vision which combines an almost surreal sensibility with unparalleled virtuosity in the handling of wash, watercolour, pencil and ink. Above all there is a perfect marriage between the subject and its depiction. This exhibition is visually satisfying and impressive to a special degree for that reason.
JOHN MARTIN ROBINSON (2010)
Hugh Buchanan’s paintings do not merely depict, they inhabit an architecture. You feel yourself in the rooms and houses which he has, over thirty years, so incomparably evoked. You feel yourself inside, not merely particular spaces, but in those spaces as first conceived by the great architects who designed them.
A.N. WILSON (2010)
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