Indulging a fantasy; the art of the architectural capriccio

Probably one of the greatest frustrations for an architect must be the commissions which remain unrealised.  For the architecture fan the frustrations can be being unable to see those buildings now lost.  In response to this, one form of art, the capriccio or architectural fantasy, has sought to forever memorialise the works of the architect through portraying them in one single painting which also, in one glorious sweep, provides a fascinating overview of the collected output of some of our finest architects.  These technically demanding works have been created for hundreds of years and an exhibition in London (open until the 2 July 2011) shows the brilliant work of Carl Laubin, the latest artist to create a breath-taking vista, this time using the combined works of one of our greatest architects, Sir John Vanbrugh.

Panini, Giovanni Paolo - Gallery of Views of Modern Rome, 1759 (Image: Web Gallery of Art)
Paini, Giovanni Paolo - 'Gallery of Views of Modern Rome', 1759 (Image: Web Gallery of Art)

The art of the capricci is regarded as having come to prominence through the skill of Marco Ricci (b.1676 – d.1730) who enjoyed popular success with his imagined views of ruins when he came to England in 1710.  The style was later developed by Giovanni Paolo Panini (b.1691 – d.1765) whose works of Rome included views of the architecture arranged as pictures in a gallery. This construct allowed many images of the famous buildings in a city to be accommodated within one picture than any physical viewpoint would permit.

In the 1740s, Giovanni Battista Piranesi created a famous series of engravings entitled ‘Prisons (Carceri)‘ which, instead of the idealised and tourist-friendly views of Rome, created an imagined labyrinth of vaulted, subterranean spaces filled with all manner of industrial machinery.  The creation of entirely imagined spaces moved the art of the capricci out of strict reality and gave artists and architects the space to dream any number of fantastical schemes.

One of the most gifted British architectural artists was Joseph Michael Gandy (b.1771 – d.1843) – a frustrated architect who found a more productive output as the ghost-artist for the brilliant, and eminently more practical and successful, Sir John Soane.  For many years, Gandy produced exquisitely rendered landscape views of Soane’s designs, usually as part of the proposals to clients to win work (aka marketing).  Soane’s sophisticated use of light and elegant façades were particularly suited to Gandy’s dramatic style which cast the buildings within lush landscapes and varied weather.  Soane was especially interested in his own architectural legacy – something which Gandy recognised when he created in 1818 his elaborate ‘Selection of public and private buildings’ parts according to Sir John Soane’s projects RA. FSA., for the metropolis and other places of the United Kingdom between 1780 and 1815‘ (to give it its full title!)

Gandy, Joseph Michael - 'A Selection of Pand Private buildings’ Parts according to Sir John Soane’s projects RA. FSA., for the metropolis and other places of the United Kingdom between 1780 and 1815', 1818 (Image: Cottbus University)
Gandy, Joseph Michael - 'A Selection of Public and Private buildings’ Parts according to Sir John Soane’s projects RA. FSA., for the metropolis and other places of the United Kingdom between 1780 and 1815', 1818 (Image: Cottbus University)

As Brian Lukacher (Joseph Gandy: An Architectural Visionary in Georgian England‘, Thames & Hudson, 2006) points out, this ingenious painting (which shows not only buildings as though models but also paintings of others a la Panini) not only serves the purpose of commemorating the many fine works of Sir John Soane but also records the many renderings which Gandy had produced in the course of their collaboration.

Soane’s successor as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, Charles Robert Cockerell (b.1788 – d.1863), also indulged in this architectural inventiveness in his own capriccio, painted in 1848, called ‘The Professor’s Dream‘. In it, rather than focus on one architect, he encompasses much of the canon of western classical architecture spanning a period of 4,000-years.  Traditionally, timelines are represented as moving from left (oldest) to right (latest), yet Cockerell brilliantly creates a receding perspective with plain earth in the foreground, then moving back in architectural development, starting with Egyptian and then moving back in four ‘terraces’ of evolution – though finishing with the great pyramids at Cheops, which at that time, were still the tallest structures on Earth.

Cockerell, C.R. - 'The Professor's Dream', 1848 (Image: Royal Academy)
Cockerell, C.R. - 'The Professor's Dream', 1848 (Image: Royal Academy)

This brilliant image was essentially a teaching aid for Cockerell to show his students that the skills and achievements of the past were the foundations for creating good architecture in the future.

So, these paintings are not only commemorative but also allegorical and instructive, but, perhaps most of all, they are beautiful. They are complex evocations of imagined landscapes not bound by the reality of whether buildings existing in the same view – or even at all.  This wonderful tradition of the capricci is now being continued by Carl Laubin, whose latest works, ‘Vanbrugh’s Castles‘ and ‘Vanbrugh Fields‘, capture, in two sweeping landscapes, the varied brilliance of Sir John Vanbrugh. Laubin originally trained as an architect but found his passion for art the stronger influence, but has combined them both, creating a series of capricci on various architectural subjects including the works of Nicholas Hawksmoor and houses of the National Trust.

Laubin, Carl - 'Vanbrugh Fields', 2011 (Image: from the artist)
Laubin, Carl - 'Vanbrugh Fields', 2011 (Image: from the artist)

The detailed views in these new paintings include all the buildings designed by Vanbrugh, both executed and unexecuted, and also some only ever vaguely sketched out, which Laubin has then worked up as fully realised buildings in his distinctive hyper-realist style: this is truly architecture as art.  What is particularly fascinating is to see all of an architect’s output in one sumptuous view – as though the finest hill town possibly imagined had been created.  These works are also created on a scale which allows for such detail to be included that every building is identifiable. Laubin has created an indulgence for any architecture fan which provides a simple, but beautifully constructed, way to get a better understanding of Vanbrugh’s creative genius; his ability to vary form, mass and architectural vocabulary but within that rich Baroque tradition of which he was an obvious master.

Capricci require immense amounts of research, planning, and dedication hence their relative scarcity but as an art form they form about as instructive body of work as one could hope for.  Architecture is very much about the physical but sometimes the fantastical can be just as satisfying; creating glorious vistas which bring home the skill of not only the architect but also the artist.


Carl Laubin at the Plus One Gallery, London – until 2 July 2011 – the gallery is a short walk from Sloane Square tube station

More about J.M. Gandy:

More about capricci: ‘Architectural fantasies‘ []