Episode 4 of the BBC’s Art that Made Us airs tonight. It takes us on a crash course of 17th Century British history through the eyes of nine artists – each unveiling a secret of the realm. That century saw five monarchs, a bitter civil war and a short-lived Republic under Cromwell – not to mention a society grappling with burgeoning technologies, the Great Plague and the Fire of London. Perhaps our own age of change is not quite so unprecedented!
The programme exposes a huge tension within the art world between truthfulness and artifice during the period, from Baroque hedonism to ‘warts and all’ portraits and carefully drawn magnified images of fleas. This was the start of the empirical tradition, a time where seeing is believing – but even this wasn’t without its own illusions and trickery.
Featured in this episode alongside contemporary artists including the illustrious photographer Platon and acclaimed artist Angela Palmer, Thomas Heatherwick explores this idea of illusion through the lens of St Paul’s Cathedral. Built over 35 years between 1675 and 1710, it has defined London’s skyline for the next three centuries. Thomas divulges a hidden secret beneath its famous dome – a work of architectural trickery that distorts internal and external visual reality to create the ‘ludicrously big’ Cathedral.
The design by Christopher Wren was rooted in a style imported like so much else at the time from continental Europe – just like Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House and the court portraits of Antony Van Dyck. But, as Thomas attests, St Paul’s ‘utterly derivative design doesn’t stop it having immense power as an object’.
You can find out more this evening at 9pm on BBC2, or catch the whole series on iPlayer!
Visualisation Credit: BBC