Emily Allchurch / Visions of Architectural Fancy
August 2018 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Currently showing at Sir John Soane’s Museum through 26th August 2018, Emily Allchurch’s complex photographic lightboxes take inspiration from art works of the Museum’s collection. Built with layers upon layers of her own photographic images to compile highly compelling landscapes, vistas, and follies, Allchurch’s images intermingle fact and fiction in a completely new way. Below, Christiane Monarchi spoke with the artist about her practice and the background to these new works.
CM: What was your interest in the architectural works by Sir John Soane, and in particular these two illustrations of his architectural masterpieces by JM Gandy that you have re-imagined with your own photographic works?
EA: I have had a long standing admiration for the British neoclassical architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and his architectural illustrator Joseph Gandy (1771-1843), ever since my students days at the Royal College of Art, when my research into GB Piranesi (1720-1778) and his influence, brought me into contact with their designs. Theirs was one of the most successful and creative partnerships in the history of British architecture. Soane quickly spotted Gandy’s genius to transform his own workmanlike drawings into dramatic, luminous perspective illustrations, and for 40 years he represented Soane at the Royal Academy of Arts annual Summer Exhibitions. Joseph Gandy was a great romantic visionary, known as ‘The English Piranesi’, so it is fitting that the three works in my current show at the Sir John Soane’s Museum are re-creations of artworks from the museum’s collection, which acknowledge both the interconnection between them, and the influence they have each had in my own practice.
Joseph Gandy painted his masterpiece Perspective of various designs for public and private buildings executed by John Soane between 1780 and 1815 for the RA Summer Exhibition in 1818. The watercolour illustrates all of Soane’s ‘built’ projects, displayed as though models in a room, along with their plans and elevations. In the bottom right-hand corner Soane is portrayed as a tiny figure, sitting at his desk with his architectural tools, seemingly dwarfed by his own genius. Two years later, Gandy created a companion piece Architectural Visions of Early Fancy for RA Summer Exhibition of 1820, in which he depicts a sweeping, mountainous landscape populated with Soane’s ‘unbuilt’ projects. These unrealised projects include designs from his early student days, to later professional disappointments – infusing the scene with the melancholia of youthful dreams and missed opportunities.
I am fascinated by the composition of both works, and their ability to record for posterity Soane’s complete professional oeuvre in just two single paintings. Acting as a survey, they helped to immortalise Soane’s legacy as one of Britain’s most important neoclassical architects.
CM: Could you describe your working process as you set out across England to photograph buildings, monuments and cities for use in your collage?
EA: Grand Tour: In search of Soane (after Gandy) was created in 2012 for a group show, ‘Sense of Soane’, at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing – the architect’s former country home. In order to re-present Gandy’s painting of Soane’s ‘built’ projects I undertook my own ‘Grand Tour’ of England to photograph Soane’s extant architecture two centuries after their completion. I contacted the current owners of Soane properties to seek permission to photograph the buildings, and researched online and using Google Street View to locate the positions of some of his more obscure constructions. The gathering of an image library is always an important part of my working process, and it is essential that I take all the photographs myself.
I had the real sense of following in Soane’s footsteps as I traveled the length and breadth of the country, gathering my Soanian imagery. I enjoyed adding layers to the narrative, such as a CCTV camera from the perimeter wall of Soane’s proudest achievement, the Bank of England; the K2 telephone box (designed by Gilbert-Scott in the 1930’s when, as a trustee of the museum, he was inspired by the design of the Soane family tomb); and capitals from the now demolished Bank of England’s interior, which I discovered in the grounds of Tyringham Hall, Buckinghamshire. Back in the studio, I used Gandy’s original painting as a template, to gradually construct my contemporary re-creation, piece by piece, over several months, using my intricate digital collage technique. The resulting artwork presents Soane’s extant buildings grouped together as though models in a room, where the exterior facades inhabit an interior Soanian space; distorting scale and suspending reality. The interior is lit with a photographic light and in the bottom right corner the tools of my trade are laid out: DSLR camera and tripod, visitor’s passes and correspondence.
When I knew I would be showing at the Sir John Soane’s Museum it made sense to also recreate Joseph Gandy’s fantastical panorama of Soane’s unrealised projects, so that the two works could hang side-by-side in the very building where they were painted two centuries before. I resolved the main challenge of finding the architectural components to construct the work, when the designs illustrated were never built, by using other examples of British neoclassical architecture from around that period, as a ‘kit-of-parts’. Supported by an a-n Travel Bursary I toured Great Britain, photographing examples of architecture in the neoclassical style, which I knew I could later digitally combine and adjust, to appear as though they had in fact been built. The resulting composite constructions in Grand Tour II: Homage to Soane (after Gandy) 2017, have been set into a hybrid Arcadian landscape, combining English country gardens with the rugged mountains of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh and Scafell Pike in the Lake District. Contemporary visitors are shown engaging with this fictional environment, and recording their experience with modern technology (smartphones, cameras and drones).
CM: Your process in making these works describes two very different creative paths, one in visually cataloguing Soane’s built works and the other in reflecting on aspects of the unbuilt visions Soane had not realised, in response to these two very different works by Gandy. I love that Gandy was known as the English Piranesi, whose illustrative views of Rome have inspired many; indeed are there echoes of this inspiration in your works at The Soane Museum?
EA: Yes, very much so. As I mentioned, it was through my interest in the work of Piranesi that I was introduced to Soane and Gandy. Giovanni Battista Piranesi is one of the greatest artists in the history of etching and the vedute genre. Born in Venice in 1720, he arrived in Rome aged twenty having served several apprenticeships in architecture, stage-set design and etching. A lack of architectural commissions enabled him to master his etching technique, in both the production of popular Roman views for the tourist market and his own quest to promote classical architecture through his elaborate architectural fantasies (capricci). For forty years, until his death in 1778, Piranesi exercised a seminal influence on European neoclassicism through these etchings, as well as through his personal contact with visiting artists, architects and patrons. Piranesi greatly inspired both Soane and Gandy, and Soane had the good fortune of meeting Piranesi in Rome in 1778, whilst on his Grand Tour of Italy as a young graduate of architecture, just a few months before Piranesi died.
Piranesi’s influence can be seen in Soane’s spatial designs and dramatic lighting solutions, none more so than in his own home at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in Holborn. Soane re-developed the rear section of his house as a triple-height museum space to display his vast collection of Greek, Roman and Egyptian casts and artifacts. Soane was an avid collector throughout his lifetime, and rather than categorising objects, he decided to show his collection in a creative, eclectic hang. I feel that there is a strong visual correlation between the etching by Piranesi I have recreated from the Museum’s collection, Imaginary View of the Ancient Intersection of the Via Appia and Via Ardentina, Rome (1756), and the curation of the Dome Area, at the heart of Soane’s Museum.
My artwork, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi (after Piranesi), uses Piranesi’s magnificent capriccio of the ancient Appian Way in Rome as a vehicle for my own commentary on property development in London, and the British capital’s uncertain future in the world today. Constructed from architectural fragments of antiquity I photographed in Rome, intermingled with those of London’s past, present and future, it is a tale of two cities – a warning about architectural hubris, where the ruinous rubble is a reminder that empires can collapse.
I enjoyed working with Piranesi’s challenging composition, in which a central viewpoint is abandoned in favour of two diagonal axes – opening up multiple vistas and adding layers of complexity and drama to the image. There are parts of the Appian Way in there, as well as giant sculptural fragments of heads and hands from the Musei Capitolini, on the Campidoglio. A bronze she-wolf with Romulus and Remus – symbol of Rome, stands over the vast intersection of piled up tombstones, monuments and crumbling walls, where Rome and London are truly intertwined: from Bramante Tempietto dome to London’s Highgate cemetery, the Victoria and Albert Memorial and the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe. Rising up behind are the shiny towers of new construction projects from the London skyline, whilst others buildings in the capital are simultaneously in a state of demolition.
CM: I’d like to know more about your preferences for the physical execution of your works here in the Foyle Space, where these luminous lightboxes seem to act as three dimensional panoramas, almost dioramas, in their visual delivery of details. How did you consider the object, size, lighting in this space?
EA: An interest in theatre and dramatic lighting for artistic effect is something I share with all three of these creative geniuses I so admire. I have been working with an artificial light source to illuminate my work from behind the photographic material for the past 20 years. Working as I do, with Old Master paintings and prints as my source of inspiration, I like then the choice of presenting the work in a very contemporary way (sprayed black aluminum frames and dimmable LED light-sheets), which, along with the updated imagery and narrative, propels the work unquestionably into the 21st century. The images purposely have a matt finish so that the lightboxes absorb the viewer into the scene, without the distraction of reflections – like a window into another world. The constructed nature of my making process, results in every part of the image being in sharp focus, which gives a hyper-real, three-dimensional quality to the finished artwork. The works are fairly large-scale, which I feel is essential, as there are so many details within each work to discover. There is, therefore, a real physical engagement the viewer must negotiate with the artwork, which perhaps derives from my training as a sculptor. I refer to my photographs as ‘made’ not ‘taken’, and the photographic medium the most appropriate for delivering my intended message.
For ‘Visions of Architectural Fancy’ I worked closely with the Museum’s Exhibitions Curator Joanna Tinworth to create an enticing atmosphere in the Foyle Space. The domed skylight was covered to create a controlled, darkened space, which has a cave like quality, allowing my lightboxes to glow with maximum drama. Adjoining the Dome Area, my illuminated works are clearly visible from across this central museum space, and offer an intriguing prospect ahead for the museum’s visitors.
I love the fact that there are many objects in my three exhibited works, which were originally photographed in the Dome Area (for example, a marble bust of Sir John Soane by Sir Francis Chantrey, a statuette of Michelangelo by John Flaxman, and several urns), and so by locating them in the neighbouring space, they are now are in direct dialogue with each other. It is totally thrilling to have the opportunity to present my work in this unique and wonderful museum.
About the artist:
Emily Allchurch trained as a sculptor, receiving a First Class (Hons.) degree in Fine Art from the Kent Institute of Art & Design – Canterbury in 1996, and an MA from the Royal College of Art in 1999, where she began working with photography as a material. Since then, she has exhibited regularly in solo and group shows in the UK and internationally.
Allchurch uses photography and digital collage to reconstruct Old Master paintings and prints to create contemporary narratives. Her starting point is an intensive encounter with a city or place, to absorb an impression and gather a huge image library. From this resource, hundreds of photographs are selected and meticulously spliced together to create a seamless new ‘fictional’ space. Each artwork re-presents this journey, compressed into a single scene. The resulting photographic collages have a resonance with place, history and culture, and deal with the passage of time and the changes to a landscape, fusing contemporary life with a sense of history. Although also available as prints, presenting the work as lightboxes maximises their theatricality, and creates a window into another world.
In 2015 she had a solo show Emily Allchurch: In the Footsteps of a Master at Manchester Art Gallery, which toured to the Djanogly Art Gallery in Nottingham. (A review for Photomonitor by Camilla Brown is featured here). Her works are held in private collections worldwide, with a complete set of her ‘Tokyo Story’ series in the permanent collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
In 2018, Allchurch was selected as one of six Finalists in the Columbia Threadneedle Prize for Figurative Art, with her lightbox ‘Babel Britain (after Verhaecht)’, which also won the Visitors’ Choice Award. In March 2018, she launched a new artwork, ‘Babel Hong Kong’, at Art Central HK, with Karin Weber Gallery, a project supported by an Arts Council England – British Council International Artists’ Development Award.
From 16 May to 26 August 2018, her solo exhibition, Visions of Architectural Fancy, is showing at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.