Under a grey sky

Exceprt from Drawing and Designed Landscape in 20th Century Britain.
2005. Modern Landscape Design Symposium Tokyo NODAI University, Japan.


To pay close attention to climate is fundamental to landscape design. Yet in Britain contstructed landscapes of the Modern period often failed through ignorance of climate and its interaction with materials, place and social function. In the damp moisture saturated climate of Britain, the adoption of materials and forms suited to dry sunny places had some unfortunate consequences.

Let us return to the landscape painting of Paul Nash to examine their light and colour in depictions of climate, and relate these to urban precint design of the Modern period.

The long tradition of sky and climate studies in British art, can be traced to early scientific interest, as well as cultural reflection of the dynamic meteorological conditions of Britain. The first thing to note in Nash’s paintings is that they are “only grudgingly tinted”1. His colours are mixed heavily with greys and whites and the tonal range is often severely restricted. The skies are frequently overcast or dominated with cloud forms. Compositionally Nash’s works are also often foregrounded with monumentally-scaled details of landscape; rocks, plants, eggs and mushrooms.

The paintings provide lessons for landscape design by telling of the experience of landscape and climate. Rainy weather bringing high air moisture content to the British Isles causes tonal, colour and texture ranges to be muted. In the characterisitc grey light of this climate, greys become greyer still. Extensive concrete or bitmac surfaces and facades of Modern precincts reflected this cold greyness. Design schemes with large extent of built surface exuded dampness, (and channelled wind, but that’s another story) and often little else, especially where young trees had yet to exert their influence.

The shadows of structure’s edges and textures are not sharp in grey-lit environments. Thus concrete also fails to animate as it might in strong sunlight, and the charcateristic bleak and featureless experience of landscape results. In their close-up, enlarged, sculptural detail and coarse texture, the foreground elements of Nash’s paintings give us a clue as to why a high level of textural variation proves a better aesthetic strategy for landscape construction detailing under grey skies.