When I was growing up I was unsure about whether I wanted to be an architect or an artist. As a result, I was attracted to painting interior murals which seemed to link both disciplines; the artistic, through the use of paint and the architectural in the transformation of spaces.
Over a summer holiday, in my late teens, I painted my younger sister’s bedroom with scenes from Alice in Wonderland. Living in a small Suffolk village, miles from the nearest shop, without a driving licence, meant I had a lot of spare time. We did not have a television at home and this was still a decade before the internet. I was, therefore, able to dedicate myself entirely to painting her room (which I doubt I would have been completed had there been more distractions). My mother was very clear that I had to finish the project. She understandably did not want a half-painted room.
To give the paintings the look of a fresco, I spent days stripping back generations of wallpaper from the walls to reveal the hidden Georgian white plaster. This was a beautifully smooth surface to paint on and slightly cracked which immediately gave the paintings an aged, almost medieval quality.
Over that summer a houseguest, called Nicky Bryant from Australia, was staying. She was employed to look after my two younger sisters, but she seemed to be just a friend of my mother’s. She painted some highly detailed wildflowers from life which still decorate an area just above the skirting around the fireplace. Unfortunately, these are now hidden behind furniture. She had a huge influence on my artistic development, and I’m sorry we lost touch. She introduced me to the PreRaphaelites, the Newlyn School and most importantly John Singer Sargent, who became my artist hero.
Not that Sargent influenced the painting of this nursery; I was using watercolour rather than oils which is a completely different technique and more akin to medieval wall paintings or renaissance frescos. In that tradition, a particular favourite of mine is Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi. Though I had not been to Mantua at that point, I knew it well from reproductions. I must have subconsciously borrowed the use of massive figures in a relatively small room and the way the composition negotiates around fireplaces, doors and windows.
Through the painting of this room, I got to appreciate the brilliance of John Tenniel whose illustrations of Alice in Wonderland I found more compelling than Lewis Carroll’s Victorian prose which seemed somewhat dry. As Alice herself quite rightly suggests ‘….what’s the point of a book without pictures’.
Though I have not attempted a painting on this scale for many years, if the situation arose I would leap at the chance to paint a grand scale fresco or mural of some sort. It seems a little absurd given I am a full-time architect now with my own office. But in years gone by architects were routinely artists; Giotto, Michelangelo and El Greco being three of the most celebrated examples. I do feel it is to the detriment of architecture that architects are no longer artists as the two disciplines complement each other so well. Buildings designed by artists, as they were during the renaissance, aim to transport you to another world, like a great story.