Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 13, 2007
Brian Lukacher Joseph Gandy: An Architectural Visionary in Georgian England London: Thames and Hudson, 2006. 224 pp.; 49 color ills.; 156 b/w ills. Cloth £40.00 (0500342210)

Enthusiasts for the remarkable work of Joseph Michael Gandy—visionary, perspectivist to Sir John Soane, romantic evoker of the sublime—have been a small but indomitable band. This is the book for which we have been waiting many years. Since the 1970s, Brian Lukacher has been researching the work of Gandy—ferreting out unknown pictures, discovering the anatomy of a life and oeuvre. He knows more than anyone else is ever likely to know about his remarkable and scintillating subject. In short this publication could not be more welcome.

Gandy (1771–1843) is in many ways a bit of a sad case. He had high hopes and initial success as an architect, and was even elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1803. Yet he ended up a failure—the draughtsman to a more successful architect, endlessly in debt (and twice imprisoned for it), ultimately incarcerated by his own family in a lunatic asylum near Plymouth where he died of dysentery in conditions condemned by an official inspection of 1843 as “foul and disgusting.” But his work—especially the large water-colored drawings—was inspired and outstanding. In their own right, his architectural drawings and myth-historical fantasies are among the supreme statements of the sublime created in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. His work for Soane is essential in conferring upon the latter’s enterprise much of the grandeur, inventiveness, and finesse for which it is famed—both in Gandy’s brilliant evocations of planned and imagined buildings never constructed and in his spectacular visions of Soane’s existing buildings sub specie aeternitatis, as future ruins, as dreamlike views, as cavernous enormities in a microcosmic space. Effectively, Gandy realized Soane’s imaginary in ways Soane’s buildings themselves rarely achieve.

Outside the Soanian oeuvre, Gandy’s work is characterized by spectacular mythical projects. He rendered antiquity’s mythical past (especially as recounted in the works of the second-century traveller Pausanias) as flamboyant living cityscapes, suffused with golden or glowing light and even peopled with deities. Not only is this a magnificently romantic classicism, but it is intensely literary—Gandy’s Royal Academy annual exhibition catalogue entries being distinguished by unusually long quotations of passages in the English translation of Pausanias made by Thomas Taylor, the English Platonist. Beyond classicism, some of his most important work extends to English themes—such as Pandemonium (the great vision of Milton’s High Capital of Satan, 1805) or The Tomb of Merlin (1815). In his later work, Gandy pursued what Lukacher elegantly calls a “mythography of architecture,” rising to an ever more fevered imbrication of architecture, cosmology, and myth, simultaneously man-made and natural. In these themes, and in particular in fostering a sense of the sublime even in the domestic, Gandy is certainly the equal of Blake or Fuseli—a wonderful romantic innovator with a sure touch and an oracular visual voice.

Lukacher’s book tells all the facts and wonderfully illustrates them with many more pictures than have been easily available to date. His approach is broadly chronological and biographic, but this skeleton is fleshed with more thematically organized interventions. Chapter 1, “To Rival Antiquity,” deals with “Gandy’s youthful dreams”; chapter 2, “Natural Abodes of Men,” focuses on what was effectively a lifelong project looking at housing (for the wealthy and the poor) and burial; chapter 3 turns to Gandy’s “Wounded Sensibility, or Fragments of a Career.” Chapters 4 and 5 focus on what are now his key works—the project of “architectural history painting” in relation to his career as exhibitor at the Royal Academy and his relations with Soane “at the fall of architecture.” Chapter 6 tackles his late work, while the book’s introduction and conclusion (respectively entitled “On the Misrepresentation of Architecture” and “On the Madness of Architecture”) nicely encompass the overweening architectural interest of his pictures. In a way we could hardly ask for more. This is a deep and intelligent discussion by someone hugely learned in his theme and utterly sympathetic to his subject. But in one sense it lets Gandy down. One feels that what Gandy’s work needs is a literary evocation as wild, imaginative, and feverish as his own mind obviously was. Lukacher is the measured and sober academic; perhaps only a poet could do this topic justice.

Something of the special nature of Gandy’s artistic gift may be seen in his employment by Soane. Soane’s public pose was always as the rational gentleman—the Royal Academy professor and master architect, who chose not to publish his more crazed and irrational writings, like the inspired manuscript “Crude Hints” that he wrote about his house in 1812. But Soane’s genius both as architect and as self-publicist was to know that what gave life to sobriety, spirit to architecture, was a touch of the dream, an aspiration to grandeur beyond the strict limits of reason, an urge for romantic excess. In his last published description of his house (1835), Soane employed a woman whom he kept anonymous (though we know her now as Barbara Hofland) to write a series of romantic ekphrases of his house and its contents to go beside his more sober descriptions. He knew he needed a flourish beyond the strictly rational to make the literary product zing—and his third and last account of the house brilliantly achieves this. In the actual building—itself striving architecturally and within the relative minuscule afforded by a London townhouse to surpass the restrictions and limitations of the genre—he used Gandy’s wonderful drawings to signal effect as pictures on the walls. But what they do is not just fill the space. They cast, in the dimension of architectural fantasy, the whole house into a dream vision of architectural desire—desire for a sublime beyond bricks and mortar, an apotheosis of ruination, a vast vision (in a near-miniature site) of golden splendor amid the indoor London gloom. On the visual level, Gandy is made to play the same role Hofland does in the textual account. In Gandy, Soane chose the executor of his vision perfectly; and despite the relationship being partly a matter of exploitation, what Gandy rendered for Soane was also what Gandy did best. It is wholly in the pattern of their relationship that the aged Soane may well have been mad but died in his bed and in wealth, whereas Gandy died penniless in a madhouse.

The poetics of Gandy’s vision—and this is what Lukacher does not sufficiently capture (perhaps because he takes it too much for granted, as a result of his long familiarity with Gandy and his corpus)—lies in his ability to spring beyond the inspiration of his work, away from buildings themselves, away from the (relatively sober) texts of Pausanias and other ancient authors, to imagine and to capture with unique vividness a dream-world implied there. Gandy makes visual and hence real the higher fantasies of his sources. He takes Pausanias out of Roman-era antiquarianism and makes his topographies “real” in a visionary world of civic and sacred ritual, peopled by the ancients whom Pausanias himself so carefully excluded from the text he wrote. It is this vision teetering on the edge of madness—with its parallels in the lives of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets like Christopher Smart and John Clare (both of whom were confined to asylums) and religious visionaries like William Blake—that the next substantive account of Gandy needs to tackle and place in context.

Jas’ Elsner
Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford