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Birkin Haward: Architect turned artist

The paintings of architect Birkin Haward capture the peculiarities of building and painting in East Anglia, writes Patrick Lynch

Two hundred years ago, a group of artists known as the Norfolk School formed around the oil painter John Crome in Norwich. The great watercolourist and draughtsman, John Sell Cotman, was part of this group. Cotman’s influence can be traced in an exhibition, held in a church in the Norfolk village of Salthouse, of images made by Birkin Haward over the past year, as he retired from his successful career as an architect and embarked upon one as an artist.

Like Cotman, Haward has made a living from drawings all his life – initially with Norman Foster and, since 1983, in partnership with Joanna van Heyningen. Haward’s father, Birkin Haward Sr, was an architect who practised in Ipswich, Suffolk. In 1946 he bought two fishermen’s cottages in Salthouse for holidays, beginning the family’s relationship with North Norfolk.

Haward’s early paintings form an introduction to the exhibition, displayed next to the church’s two damaged rood screens, whose saints’ faces were scratched out during the Reformation. The paintings in the exhibition are grouped according to technique, which loosely correlates with their year, and they move from the usual horizontal lines of the landscape to studies of storms at sea and profound shafts of dark rain.

Nets and sea defences are drawn with charcoal edges, defining immense white spaces, and the point of view seems eccentric, without a centre. Crome also aspired to this sense of ‘breadth’. He was interested in showing life as it was, and yet Cotman’s graphic insistence on the integrity of images influenced him, and vice versa. Sketching in the open air in oil and watercolour, the artists began a tradition somewhere between topographical painting and allegorical painting; between Courbet and Constable, and begetting Turner. In Crome’s pictures, houses appear as pure silhouettes. In Haward’s, houses only fully appear when viewed from the sea. Doubled in water, they refuse to be defined by lines, preferring instead liquid reflection, shadow – a sort of flight.

It seems to me that there is something unusual about drawing and building in East Anglia. Buildings seem to float on the earth, not quite anchored. One can draw a comparison between Foster’s 1974 Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich, which Haward worked on, and the 1983 Newnham College Rare Books Library in Cambridge by van Heyningen and Haward Architects. Both float successfully and ambiguously between context and abstraction, establishing a pure presence that is almost just site – simply background brought forward, breadth as opposed to layered depth.

Spontaneity – as Oscar Wilde pointed out – is the hardest pose to pull off, and Haward’s work seems simultaneously fresh and animated with both reaction and contemplation. As he gains confidence in his technique throughout the year, he grows more experimental. Photographs become subject matter themselves; images become not only exhibitions of virtuosity and experience, but also thoughtful re-presentations of reality. At times Haward shifts from using charcoal to describe the effects of light to using it to mark enclosure. This seems at first simply a different way to use a material, but in fact it is a different way of thinking about things.

Time appears in Haward’s images as the regenerating spontaneity of sunlight and sublime seasonal disturbances, and as entropy and the decay of man-made marks on the land. Circles are implied by intense hatching; light by what is left after lines are made. As the year progresses, lines dissolve into monochromatic washes and volumes become silhouettes in the snow.

Around late spring, Haward plunges suddenly into colour, applying gouache and emulsion to coloured paper in broad strokes. Not quite covered, the ground is left to inspire and contrast with the architecture of the paintings, suggesting more.

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