07 January, 2007

The National Gallery’s new inscription: a very English blunder

Trafalgar Square is one of the very few public spaces in Britain that have the feeling of an outside room, designed as a place to meet in, like St Peter’s Square in Rome or St Mark’s in Venice. The north side, at the head of the sloping site, is occupied by a single public building, the National Gallery. To the south there is a view of Whitehall, closed in the distance by the Houses of Parliament. Since road traffic was excluded from the north side of the square two years ago, it has become an even more attractive space, the natural centre of the capital city.
Architectural critics have never been enthusiastic about the design of the long façade of the Gallery. It was planned during the 1830s and it is the work of William Wilkins, who also designed the buildings of University College in Gower Street. In his time Wilkins was one of the new enthusiasts for Greek (rather than Roman) architecture, and his buildings are distinguished by accurately observed historical detail. But for most people this bland façade with its pedantic Greek elements just makes a dignified enclosing wall to the north. There is livelier material in the square below, from the static elements like Nelson’s Column and Landseer’s lions to the ephemeral ones, like the political assemblies that have met there since the 1880s.

During the 19th century the National Gallery’s building was expanded to the north and also, quite recently, to the west (the Sainsbury Wing), but until 2005 the original façade had been scrupulously preserved by successive Directors of the Gallery. Charles Saumarez Smith was appointed director in 2002 in succession to Neil MacGregor, one of the most successful and charismatic directors the Gallery has ever had, who had kept admission free despite fierce political pressure to charge for entry. The new director supervised a radical and opulently-funded makeover of the interior of the building. The culminating gesture, for which the director took personal responsibility, was to have the words THE NATIONAL GALLERY cut in gilded letters a foot high or more into the entablature below the pediment of Wilkins’s portico. (‘Making an entrance at the National Gallery’, Apollo, September 2005.)
The addition to the text of THE seems rather flat. Perhaps it was added to fill out the short inscription. The letters could not be taller because there is no room for them to be taller. Perhaps – but, no, there is no ‘perhaps’ about it – the building was never designed to have letters cut on it. It is a Greek building, and the Greeks of the Athens of Pericles, unlike the Romans who later conquered them, used small, simple, geometrical inscriptional letters, and they rarely put them on their buildings.
Nor indeed, two hundred years ago, did the British. There are hardly any identifying inscriptions on the new public buildings that began to appear in London towards the end of the 18th century and during the first decades of the 19th: Chambers’s Somerset House, Soane’s Bank of England (he put some on his drawings, but they were not added to the building), Smirke’s British Museum, the Barry–Pugin Houses of Parliament. Perhaps there are elements of English snobbery at work here: the Pall Mall clubs and – until very recently – the Oxbridge colleges had no names on them, and the Bank of England prudently kept as low a profile as it could. You either knew what these buildings were without having to be told – or you had no business to know.
At any rate it was left to continentals to put redundant names like ASSEMBLÉE NATIONALE in big letters on their legislatures. Sometimes, to be fair, the addition of the lettering had a purpose. A gesture of national dedication lies behind the inscription DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE – To the German people – that was designed by the artist Peter Behrens for the grandiose Italianate façade of the Reichstag in Berlin in a deliberately non-classical style of lettering. But it was not placed there until 1916, when the success of the War began to falter and it was added at the order of Bethmann-Hollweg in the name of national solidarity and political liberalism, with the grudging consent of the Kaiser.
To return to the matter of the National Gallery and its new inscription, there are several grounds for criticism.
I have mentioned the first, which may be called the art-historical objection, namely that the Greek architecture on which the building is so scrupulously modelled would not have had lettering on it, certainly not lettering on the scale of the splendid but vulgarly aggressive inscription of the Pantheon in Rome, which is the ultimate model for so many pedimented fronts, from S Maria Novella in Florence and St Peter’s in Rome to the French and German examples mentioned above. An English example is St Martin’s in the Fields, just to the right of the National Gallery, which bears a dedication in big lettering, aimiable but unsophisticated. It is worth noting that this was a building that Wilkins heartily detested. The name on the front of the original Pantheon in Rome is that of a city boss, Agrippa. Powerful family names are prominently displayed on the Italian examples too: those of Rucellai, the banker, in Florence, and Borghese, also known as Pope Paul V, in Rome. There is an air of self-promotion about these inscriptions.
However, if we accept for the moment that new lettering may sometimes be legitimately added to an old building (we shall return to this – a crucial question – below) what style should be used? It is not a simple matter. One option would be to ask what lettering the architect of the National Gallery would have chosen, if his wishes to keep it free of an inscription – which seem pretty clear – had been overridden. Two models suggest themselves. One would have been the Roman lettering of the period. Fortunately there is an excellent example close to the Gallery itself, the ‘National Schools’ just to the north of St Martin’s Church, built in about 1830. Its name is in a big and splendid letter, deeply incised into the façade. It has been admired by, among other knowledgable people, Nicolete Gray (Lettering on buildings, 1960, fig. 60). There is a good image in Phil Baines and Catherine Dixon, Signs: lettering in the environment, 2003, p. 121).
A bolder choice among models for contemporary lettering would have been a sanserif. This style of lettering was a revival at the end of the 18th century – the originator seems to have been John Soane – of the primitive form of Roman letter that stood in relationship to the more florid Imperial model of the first century like that of early Greek or Roman architecture to the later periods. (See the post headed ‘The Nymph and the Grot, an update’, in this blog, and also The Nymph and the Grot, 1999.) Not only had Wilkins’s own father used such lettering in the captions to the plates in his essay on some Roman remains near Norwich (in Archaeologia, 1796), but Wilkins himself used sanserifs on his design for a Nelson monument in Dublin, consisting of a large Greek Doric column.
One could equally cogently have argued for the choice of some non-historical model, such as was done successfully (but in very special circumstances) in Berlin. Indeed one can imagine that a quite elegant modern monoline but Greek-inflected sanserif – Edward Wright’s ‘Flaxman’ letter for New Scotland Yard, for example – might have combined the best of both responses to the problem, if that was what was needed.
So what was the style that was chosen? It was a typeface, Bembo, the digital font that is currently specified for the Gallery by its present branding consultants and which is used on its plastic bags and posters, and on the big banners that flap between the columns to advertise special exhibitions. This font is shown in all its banal detail on the planning application submitted to the City of Westminster in 2005, enlarged to 400 mm, an image that was no doubt derived from the digital font that was adapted from the typeface drawn in 1929 by the British Monotype Corporation for use on their casting machines in sizes of about 10 or 12 points. (How long will the present branding consultants last, one wonders, and what font will their successors recommend?)

Fortunately a literal rendering of the Bembo font was not the model for the letters that were actually cut. They are the work of Brenda Berman and Annet Stirling, whose lettercutting partnership is known as Incisive Letterwork. They made a quite free adaptation of the Imperial Roman stone-cut model which underlies the original printing type of 1496 from which the typeface Bembo was itself adapted. What they did was intelligently and sensitively executed, and I do not wish my words here to be interpreted as criticism of the quality of their work, for which I have great respect.

But if we apply the ‘art historical’ test to this example, as lettering to be added to a Greek design, the work of a scrupulous and purist architect, it is difficult to see how a more alien model could have been chosen. When the Romans conquered Greece they might have cut the name of an emperor in big Roman letters across the front of the Parthenon. Happily they did not. The choice of an Imperial Roman letter is no less insensitive and inappropriate in the present case.
However the choice of the style of lettering is not the most important question at issue, which is, how it was possible for so radical an alteration to be made to the appearance of one of the most prominent public buildings in Great Britain, one that had survived intact for 170 years and that one would therefore expect to be protected against the passing whims of its tenants.
And so it is, at least in theory. An application for permission to add the inscription was made to the planning department of the City of Westminster. And they in their turn, since a listed building was concerned, sought the advice of the body called English Heritage, who gave their permission without hesitation, and perhaps without giving the matter much thought. At all events, I cannot find any evidence that any there was any serious consideration of the principle of cutting prominent lettering into a very well-known public building, one that was in all probability deliberately designed not to have lettering applied to it. Or that any informed consideration was given to the model for the lettering that was proposed. This disquieting aspect of the whole episode is why I am discussing it here. It is possible that in the future an similarly ill-judged alteration to a more important work of architecture may be proposed, and the decision in the case of the National Gallery may be cited as a precedent. So let us be clear about the reasons why the addition of this inscription is such a clumsy and offensive act.
It is one of the first principles of the conservation of works of art, and one that one would hope that the director of an art gallery would not only be aware of but endorse and follow, that so far as possible no irreversible intervention should be made in the process of restoring a painting. The National Gallery’s building is no less a work of art than the paintings it houses, and it is one which is equally deserving of the care of its director.
A plea has been made to me, by way of excuse for what has been done, that the National Gallery needed to be identified so that people would not confuse it with the National Portrait Gallery next door. That seems a pretty feeble argument. The entrance to the Portrait Gallery, a smaller building, is round the corner and cannot be seen from Trafalgar Square. And English Heritage has suggested to me that it will eliminate the need for those big banners for blockbuster exhibitions. I will believe that when I see it happen.
But if we grant some validity to these pleas, what were the practical options? Not very long ago the name of the British Museum was placed clearly in large metal letters on the entrance pavilions and Smirke’s Ionic portico was left intact. I am not hugely enthusiastic about the lettering that was used, but if necessary it could be removed and would leave hardly a trace. A couple of decades ago the name of Street’s gothic Law Courts in the Strand was added by attaching to the wall gothic letters which seem to have been modelled on William Morris’s Troy type. I think the effect is bizarre, but again they could be removed cleanly. The Behrens inscription on the Reichstag is similarly made of applied, and detachable, metal plates (cast from the bronze of French cannon captured in 1813 at Leipzig). Something might, in all humility, have been learned from these examples.
The Director of the National Gallery, operating in Ozymandias mode, has had his inscription cut deeply and indelibly into the fabric of the building for which he is responsible. What he has committed is not merely an error of judgment which inevitably raises questions about his fitness for the post, but an act of vandalism which must not be allowed to legitimate a similar exercise in the future.

In March 2007 it was announced that Charles Saumarez Smith, the Director of the National Gallery, would leave his post later in the year to become secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy.