By Dr Matthew Walker
Antony Griffiths’s brilliant Slade Lectures this term have got us all thinking about the print and its role in European culture before the invention of photography. For me personally, they have been hugely useful as my own research is often concerned with printed material about architecture in the seventeenth century. In this post I thought I might give my thoughts on Antony’s lectures and, more generally, say something about the role that prints play in architectural history.
One of the most important implications of Antony’s lectures has, I think, been his challenging of art (and architectural) historians’ use of prints as relatively straightforward transmitters of visual information in the pre-photographic age. He has shown time and time again in his talks that this was not the case; that prints were highly complex objects that should be considered in their own right rather than as windows onto lost artistic cultures. Architectural historians have been particularly guilty of this sin of anachronism I think. And my conscience is by no means clear. In an article I published in 2013 on the now demolished anatomy theatre of the College of Physicians in London (designed by Robert Hooke in the 1670s) [Figure 1] I used a series of engravings of the structure to communicate to the reader what the building had once looked like. But at no point did I stop and think about these prints as objects made with ink, a copperplate and a printing press, instead I treated them as the equivalent of early modern photographs.
So, I’ve recently started to think about the seventeenth-century architectural print as, firstly, a historically localised object and, secondly, as a potentially tricky customer when it comes to representational accuracy. Take the example of another article I published recently. This included a remarkable illustration: an engraving of another, much older theatre, the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, built in the 2nd century AD on the slopes of the Acropolis. It was depicted as it had appeared to a French traveller when he visited Athens in 1675. [Figure 2] The engraving was widely circulated as very few Western Europeans had ever visited Greece and the building was largely unknown at the time. Except that this engraving did not show the building at all, the people who made it had never been to Athens and the entire image had been fabricated in Paris. A photograph on a lantern slide from the Visual Resources Centre shows the actual structure in the early twentieth century before recent restoration work [Figure 3] and we can see just how wide of the mark the engraving was. Luckily, a traveller called Francis Vernon visited Athens in 1676 and immediately wrote back to London and Paris warning people of the disingenuous nature of the print. A subsequent English edition of the book in which the print had first appeared was then published without the offending image.
The Odeon print shows that some engraved images of architecture in the early modern period were exercises in outright fiction. But this is a limit case, and its mendacity was exposed at the time of its production. To return to Hooke’s anatomy theatre we can see that other prints from the period – that were apparently accurate representations of buildings – still have the potential to trip the architectural historian up. Look at the engraving I showed earlier. It is a print of Hooke’s theatre that had been produced in 1677 by the well-known seventeenth-century engraver David Loggan. For a long time this was one of the only images we had of the demolished theatre until two remarkable photographs of the building, taken weeks before its destruction in 1866 showed up in the present day archives of the college [Figure 4&5]. Comparing the print with the photographs we can immediately see that the Loggan engraving is reasonably accurate but with differences in the proportions of the dome, the glazing of the lantern and the details of the finial, everything below matches up. Can we explain these small but significant inaccuracies? Yes, I believe we can. As part of my research on the theatre I have accurately reconstructed the history of its construction and we now know that, as Loggan’s print was made in 1677, it predated the completion of building work by nearly three years. In fact, it was produced just as Hooke was designing the dome and its lantern. So, Loggan must have taken the design of the dome from drawings, probably by Hooke (who he knew well), rather than in situ. Hence the small differences between the print and the building.
This has interesting implications for other engravings of the theatre. A year later, and still two years before building work finished, we find another, anonymous engraving, very similar to Loggan’s, but much cruder [Figure 6]. This print must have been based on Loggan’s as it exaggerates the differences in the design of the glazing and the finial now bears very little resemblance to the executed building. The chances are this engraver only had access to Loggan’s print and not Hooke’s drawings, thus the small inaccuracies became magnified. This process even continued after the building was completed. Another print, again made after Loggan in 1707, either in France or for the French market, shows the inaccurate rendering of the dome and lantern [Figure 7] in spite of the building having been finished nearly thirty years previous. This print seems to have been made by somebody who had never seen the building as the structure was now rendered ludicrously out of scale with a group of human figures that had also been added to the composition.
To return to Loggan, the point of this extended discussion is that we should see the original engraving of the theatre not as a depiction of the building, but rather as a depiction of the design of the building. It had been based, to some degree, on Hooke’s drawings rather than the structure itself. This is an important distinction I think, and Antony made a similar point in his seventh lecture about Marcantonio’s engravings after Raphael, which show examples of Raphael’s disegno rather than his paintings per se. But there is another potential explanation for the inaccuracies of both the Loggan print and the copies of it. This relates to function. The original Loggan engraving was commissioned by the College of Physicians to accompany the publication of its annual ‘Pharmacopoeia’, a printed review of the drugs available in the London medical world and a display of the physicians’ control over treatments given out in the city. Thus, the print was the visual counterpart of the accompanying Latin text and was less a representation of a building, more a symbol of a learned organisation. Loggan’s engraving of the theatre served as a synecdoche for the institution and for the intellectual calibre of its members. This explains why the print depicts the theatre in isolation from the rest of the city (a feature of the image that was grossly exaggerated in the 1707 French engraving) in spite of its actual site being a cramped urban one in the area of the city north of St. Paul’s Cathedral. In this case, I think, the desire for symbolic clarity in the print outweighed the need for architectural or topographical veracity. In other words: architectural historians beware!
But I don’t mean to suggest that architectural historians should eschew prints. As long as we heed Antony’s warning and always consider the circumstances of a print’s production and their functions beyond the straightforward reproducing of works of art and architecture, then they have much to offer us. In the case of Loggan’s print, it reveals far more about the design history of the building as well as the intellectual aspirations of its patrons and its users than any photograph could.
Matthew Walker BA (Oxford) MA PhD (York) is a Departmental Lecturer in the History of Art Department and a Tutor for St. Peter’s and Worcester Colleges. Matthew’s research concerns architecture and intellectual culture in late seventeenth and early eighteenth-century Britain. He is currently finishing his first book, Architects, Builders and Intellectual Culture in Post-Restoration England, and is an editor for the journal Architectural History.