We asked Dr Rachel Sloane, Assistant Curator of prints and Drawings to tell us about our latest display in the Drawings Gallery
Over the course of 2016, every corner of Somerset House has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia with a rich and varied programme of exhibitions and events, UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility. The Courtauld Gallery’s own contribution to this celebration, A Civic Utopia: Architecture and the City in France, 1765-1837, is currently on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawing Gallery (to 8 January).
Civic Utopia considers the power of architecture and urban planning to shape and influence ideas of public life, focusing on the work of architects in France during and immediately after the Age of Enlightenment (1765-1837). Instead of focusing on grandiose (and often unrealised, or unrealisable) edifices, the emphasis is firmly on the everyday and on spaces where a broad cross-section of society mingled, including city markets, exchange halls, prisons, parks, abattoirs, hospitals and cemeteries. The exhibition has been organised in partnership with a major collection of architectural drawings, the Drawing Matter Trust, and we have been very fortunate to be able to work with them and display some of their treasures in the Drawing Gallery.
Although the main focus of Drawing Matter Trust, as its name suggests, is drawings, it also holds some fascinating three-dimensional objects, two of which are form part of the exhibition. In the centre of the gallery is a table on which are displayed – as in an architect’s office – drawings and watercolours depicting gateways and boundaries of cities, from a post-Revolutionary scheme for the Place de la Concorde by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1811) to a delicate black chalk drawing by Georges Michel of the Place and Barrière de la Nation, showing a much more open and convivial space than today’s traffic-clogged roundabout. The top of the table was designed and produced especially for the exhibition, but look beneath it and you’ll find two dazzling pieces of eighteenth-century craftsmanship: the trestle legs are journeyman pieces produced by cabinetmakers as a way of showing off their skills in the widest possible range of joinery techniques.
It is especially fitting that the exhibition is taking place within Somerset House, since William Chambers’s design follows many of the same principles that informed the utopian vision of the city that these architects pursued. Come and see these how these architects tackled the challenge of creating ideal urban spaces – and a living, breathing example of such a space.