The Decline of Architectural Drawing (1859)

By C. H. Smith

Henry Roberts (1803–1876), Fishmongers’ Hall, 1838. Pen, ink, watercolour and bodycolour on thick wove paper, 505 × 747 mm. DMC 2161.

The Royal Academy’s 1859 summer exhibition, combined with a number of architectural drawings on display in Conduit Street, left a less than positive impression on critic C. H. Smith. In an article published by The Builder, Smith describes what he sees as a decline in the quality of the architectural drawing.

Never having followed the arts professionally, but merely as an assistant, in certain departments of trade, especially that of architectural ornaments, and having been regularly admitted into all the schools of the Royal Academy, I still continue, as an old student, to enjoy a free admission at all times to the different schools, the library, and exhibition-rooms, particularly where architecture forms a prominent feature. Taking a retrospective view in my mind of the general state of the fine arts, as exemplified in the various metropolitan exhibitions during certain periods, say every ten years, a gradual and decided improvement is unquestionably taking place. If it were possible to measure or weigh the exact quantity of talent in one entire exhibition at the Royal Academy, we should find the collective amount of merit, each year, greater than that of the year preceding. This remark applies equally to oil and watercolours, at all the exhibitions in London and elsewhere. If I follow the same train of examination to pictorial architectural drawings – that is, to perspective views either of existing buildings or imaginary designs – the present is not quite so satisfactory as in other departments of the graphic and plastic arts. The architectural draughtsmen, as a body, are not making the same slow, gradual, certain advancement in the right direction, which is so evident amongst the painters and sculptors. I tremble at the very idea of retrogression in a body of liberal-minded men, uniting together, in the most friendly manner, for mutual improvement: I also exert my utmost energies against falling imperceptibly into a habit of telling long stories, to the present generation, of the many wonderful feats that ‘we did, when we were young,’ ­–

‘Goodnatured, harmless, kind grey-headed men,
Arrived at more than three score years and ten,
Talk of their youth, and marvels they did then.’

Yet I cannot persuade myself to believe that the generality of drawings now exhibiting at the gallery in Conduit Street, display as much artistic judgement and execution in the effects of light, shade, distance, and aerial gradations of tone in colour, &c. as were displayed in the drawings of a former period, perhaps twenty or thirty years since.

On looking at the architectural drawings in the Royal Academy Exhibition, I am disposed to consider they are altogether better; that is, they display far more artistic ability than is to be found in Conduit Street. In conversation with a gentleman belonging to the Royal Academy, I inquired respecting the small number of architectural subjects exhibited in their rooms: his reply was, that the greater number offered were so deficient in merit, as pictures, that, in the opinion of the judges, they would be almost wholly without interest to the public, and certainly not very creditable to the authors of them; and that the hanging committee found it necessary to put a few oil paintings and other subjects amongst the architectural drawings, to induce visitors to go into that room; otherwise it would be empty and unnoticed, except by a few architects or builders. The idea immediately flashed across my mind, – can this be one of the reasons why there are so few visitors in Conduit Street? For I have been there several times lately, on purpose to examine attentively the general merit of the drawings as works of art, and found I could do this without interruption, for the galleries were nearly deserted: occasionally two or three individuals might be observed to stroll in, buy a catalogue, carry it around without opening it, gaze round in a queer sort of incoherent manner during about a quarter of an hour, and walk out as if they had lost themselves, were bewildered or had made some grand mistake.

I have sometimes ventured, in a very friendly manner, to remonstrate with my young friends about their flat, tame, feeble, and almost shadow-less perspective drawings, which have been prepared expressly either for some world-wide competition, or else hung in a public exhibition room, perhaps close to a powerful and effective picture, which by contrast will make my friend’s performance look still more in want of strength. The mild remonstrance has generally been answered by, ‘Oh, I only drew the outline. I got Mr. ––– to tint it. Architects now hardly ever shade or colour their own designs.’ I hear this mode of obtaining assistance is very frequently adopted in modern times; and if it were an improvement upon the past – if better drawings were produced – if the end were more successful – it might be but of little importance what means it might be but of little importance what means were resorted to for the purpose of gaining a favourable and honourable result. Judging from appearances and frequent trials, this modern practice seems to be a step in the wrong direction; not because there are no artists fully capable of making clever architectural drawings, but because highly-talented artists, even if they are disposed to work second-hand, require higher remuneration for their services than their cousins of the rule and compasses can afford to give: consequently the latter are obliged to put up with the help if an inferior artist; or if the clever man can be pressed into the service, the pay is so trifling that, in justice to himself, he is obliged to get through the work most expeditiously, and determines not to touch the drawing after the architect says ‘It will do.’ In this special of manufacture the artist loses no credit by the performance, because his name is altogether withheld from the public.

If these architects ever were able to make their own drawings; being out of practice, the hand, and the judgement, too, become as it were paralysed, or unskilful, and thereby incapable of either making good drawings, or knowing where they are cleverly made for them. It may be considered as an invariable rule, that if ever an artist ceases to improve, either from his own indolence or other cause, he cannot put a drag to the wheel, or make a dead stand-still: if he does not go forward, his is sure to go back at a rapid pace, and in all probability without having the most remote idea of his own retrocession, although it may be evident enough to his friends and admirers.

I do not presume to interfere in matters of taste, composition, colouring, or any of those undefined qualities in a picture, which admit of a wide diversity of opinions; but I object to whatever is a stretch beyond the bounds of possibility in nature; such as light shining, with equal intensity, on more than two sides of a polygonal building, at the same time; and many other defects, not of a doubtful species, but of a positive and definite kind.

I have a horror of being classed amongst those anonymous critics who, although unable to paint pictures, conceive themselves at full liberty to judge them, and who treat the artist, whether good or bad, as an animal whom everybody is privileged to attack. By not particularising individual works, I hope to avoid giving offence to anyone: each artist may therefore enjoy the peculiar felicity of believing his own performances to be entirely free from the defects which have been mentioned, and discriminate, perhaps for the first time, glaring faults in all other pictures. It is in our nature to consider advice as something very like presumption, bordering upon insolence to our understanding, which we are all tenacious of having doubted, or of having our discernment called in question, especially after having ‘arrived at years of discretion.’ Notwithstanding truths may at times be disagreeable, in some cases they are indispensable; but should I have expressed myself in warm or harsh terms, I can conscientiously assert that my earnest desire is to do good; and that a little friction is always required to produce the most beautiful polish.

The Decline of Architectural Drawing, according to C. H. Smith, was published in The Builder in June 1859.