CELEBRATING PALLADIO

Plus One Gallery, Pimlico, London, 2008


In a recent essay, Guido Beltramini conjures the idea of Palladio arriving at a client’s ‘villa’, “dismounting from his horse amid lean-to sheds, threshing floor, chickens; finding himself in front of a broken-down house, out of fashion and asymmetrical, where the latrines are still nestled in the corner of habitable rooms…”, and by force of will and with the help of antiquity, reordering everything for the better: better function, better health, and delivering something “more than a habitation, assuming the character of a temple, a monument to patron and architect alike.”


It is neat summary of the architect’s achievement, for in the general worship of Palladio the facts are often forgotten. He was not the first to build a villa nor did he invent the working farm. His achievement was giving order, and hence expressive force, to an existing way of life.


To seal it for posterity he wrote it all down in a book, whose imaginative influence was to lead far away from the ‘polli e la casa malandata’, the world of the working farm. In fact the latest stop on this extensive path is the exhibition Celebrating Palladio at the Plus One Gallery, Pimlico. Organized over the past year by the painter Carl Laubin to mark the 500th anniversary of Palladio’s birth, the show gathers the work of painters, architects, sculptors, modelmakers, and poets, all of whom are still in one way or another working the seam of Palladianism. The exhibition is a labour of love, and a brave move on the part of the gallery in a cultural climate that generally sees architecture in commercial galleries as a non-starter. Almost all the works are for sale, and the attractive catalogue has a useful scene-setting introduction by David Watkin. The purpose according to Laubin is to present work that is “rich in thought and meaning, while so much of our environment is full of one-liners”.


The two great Professor’s Dream-type canvases by Laubin himself prove the point. Cinquecentenario assembles many of the Master’s buildings in a fictional landscape, and Palladius Britannicus does the same with Palladio-influenced English buildings, from Inigo Jones to Julian Bicknell. As the artist explains this canvas, you come to see that you need to bring something to the painting - something that perhaps you have to learn - before you can hope fully to appreciate it. (Interaction as it used to be understood.) The chronology of the buildings moves right to left, the foreground meadow is perhaps the Campagna Romana or the Forum, but as it moves middle distance it becomes an English meadow, the perfected and idealized landscape of Claude and Poussin (so we haven’t escaped the chickens altogether), shifting then into the landscaped park. This isn’t the place to cover the whole narrative structure of the painting - there is a detailed guide at the exhibition - but the layering is deep, intelligent and rich.


Paul Day, of St Pancras Meeting Place notoriety, has a fabulous high-relief frieze, reminiscent of the stage set at Vicenza’s Teatro Olimpico, where the distortions of space occupy a strange territory between sculpture and drawing. There are plenty of paintings, from artists you wouldn’t normally put in the same room: glacially still interiors by Ben Johnson, a portrait by James Hart Dyke, watercolours by Jane Corsellis and Andrew Creswell. But it works because of the underlying sensibilities and thoughtfulness of every work. An additional unifying element is the presence of models - perhaps as many as thirty - made by Timothy Richards of Palladian and classical buildings. These little works, cast in plaster with eye watering levels of detail, leave the world of craft and enter the realm of art. From Bramante’s Tempietto to the Villa Capra and the Temple of the Winds at Castle Howard, the presence of these miniatures gives an unexpected extra vitality to the show. They are astonishing, brilliant, and in themselves deserve a visit.


And then there are the architects. Laubin has managed to get three generations of English classicists from one office: Raymond Erith, represented in a lovely linocut plan and elevation for Wivenhoe New Park; Quinlan Terry, with various villas; Terry’s son Francis; and Erith’s grandson, George Saumarez Smith. Additionally there are projects by Julian Bicknell and Liam O’Connor. I confess to finding it hard to love this work. For all that this exhibition demonstrates that the underlying humanist values of classicism still have validity, this kind of literalism sounds to me like conversation in a dead language. And that’s fine, but it’s hard to imagine a dead language doing other than repeating old tales, or to imagine it as a tool of creation. More forceful is Leon Krier - unfortunately represented here only by three Osbert Lancaster-like sketches. Bitter-Classicism: he has always used it as a club with which to beat the heads of Modernism. Long may it last!


So perhaps not a single path but many, radiating out from the great 16th century architect, Andrea Palladio, who stands at the centre of things. I was pleased so see this borne out by the label attached to a Timothy Richards model of the Greenwich Hospital: ‘Royal Navel Hospital’, it reads, thus confirming Palladio as the Omphalos of Architecture.