It’s 1801, and Napoleon has now occupied Rome for the last five years, preventing you from the well trodden grand tour. What’s a classically educated young gentleman of means to do? Well if you’re Edward Dodwell, you pick up Simone Pomardi as a companion, skip past the boot and travel onto classical Greece. It’s reality, however, was far removed from the imagined Greek idyll, it’s former city states reduced to ramshackle villages, surrounding and surrounded by ruins of mighty ancient monuments, toppled and worn down by time and the Ottoman heel.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, my thoughts coming away from it were more to do with recording travel and experience. While the camera captures immediate reality, which can be manipulated after the event, I felt I was far more engaged by the paintings than I would have been by the same exhibition had it been more contemporary and consisted of photographs. Or maybe it was just nostalgia, the landscapes evoking a sparsely populated countryside broken up only by the romanticised ruins, while a camera could capture this, would a painting properly capture the more brutal reality of today, a whole world far more populated and ravaged than nineteenth century Greece? Perhaps, but even Dodwell and Pomardi’s use of the camera obscura, a mechanical drawing device used for recording architecture more quickly and accurately than freehand, involved them finishing off the picture by hand, giving the picture it’s human touch. But exactly where did they take their brushes and easels?
Well, the companions began in the western isles of Corfu and Ithaca before moving through the Greek mainland to Athens. Dodwell, his mind seduced by Homer’s tales of Troy, travelled onwards to northern Turkey as well.
Just outside the room is a magnificent panorama of Corfu town, spread across four separate sheets, with details even in the roof tiles and undulating green fields in the distance.
Another multiple sheeted panorama is that from the hill of the muses, where Athens is a small village, nestled almost out of site, under the Acropolis on the far right of the painting.
Both Dodwell and Pomardi have a similar style and they evoke a quiet, sparse landscape, as well as elaborate grotto’s and shrines, you could almost hear the thud of the cattle bell carried by a light breeze as you walked round.
Not all the drawings were complete, Pomardi’s Temple of Olympian Zeus, had rusty looking columns coloured and completed, while the rest is just sketched outlines, drawing the eye in, before it gazes across the unfinished surroundings, would this, for example, work as well in a manipulated photograph? Others were taken back to Italy and completed there, where locals such as Turkish women, slaves, shepherds or musicians were sometimes added in, almost the exact opposite of photoshopping today, where we take unwanted people out of the picture as they are spoiling view. In other instances, the inclusion of people, such as the seated man in view through the porch colonnades of the West side of the Partenon by Dodwell, give the drawing a natural portrayal of scale.
At one end of the room is a panorama displayed in a rotunda in the strand in London in 1818. Giving people the chance to stand in the centre and take in 360 degree views, the completed drawings sometimes took up as much as 900 sq m of canvas. Also in the exhibition are sketchbooks, pottery and vases and casts from various monuments.
At the end I felt that the paintings offer a much warmer, human depiction of a place, than the full on truth of a photograph. While exhibitions such as the world press photography awards show just how great photographs are for capturing the unadorned truth, I wonder if that’s what we want from travel pictures. Ignoring for the moment the inconvenience of lugging around painting materials and keeping completed works safe, a completed drawing of a place surely offers a much more personal experience of your travels than a photograph? Or does it depend on the person? Give five people a camera and point them at a scene, you are just as likely to get five different photographs as you would if you gave the same five people paints, paper, brushes and an easel. As it is, the inconvenience will prevent all but the most dedicated from painting their way round the world, or, if you are like me, so will a complete lack of ability as far as drawing is concerned.
Dodwell and Pomardi, on the other hand, capture a lost Greece, that even in their time had already lost itself. The companions were lured and enticed by the romantic notions of the Greece of antiquity but still sought to accurately portray the land they travelled, and for that we should be grateful, whether they used a camera or brush.
exhibition details here