Under a grey sky

Edited excerpt 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 when designing landscape. Yet in Britain contstructed landscapes of the Modern period often faltered through ignorance of climate and its interaction with materials, place and social function. In the damp moisture saturated climate of this island the adoption of materials and forms suited to dry sunny places had some unfortunate consequences.

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

A long tradition of sky and climate studies in British art, may be traced to early scientific interest in and cultural reflections on the dynamic meteorological conditions of the British Isles. The first thing to note in Nash’s paintings is that they are “only grudgingly tinted”1. His colours are mixed heavily with grey and white. The tonal range is severely restricted. The skies are overcast and dominated with cloud forms. The works are often foregrounded with monumentally-scaled details of landscape; rocks, plants, eggs and mushrooms.

Nash’s paintings provide lessons for landscape design by telling us something 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. The extensive concrete 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.