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IUScholarWorks Journals
23.04.02 Tutton, Construction as Depicted in Western Art

23.04.02 Tutton, Construction as Depicted in Western Art

Michael Tutton surveys paintings, drawings, monuments, and sculpture ranging from ancient Egypt to the late twentieth century in a search for depictions of contemporary construction processes and workers. The scope is nothing less than epic, but the ambition is not always matched by the careful execution needed in a work such as this. The book is broken into three main sections, each focusing on a particular person who played a key part in building. The first chapter focuses on the carpenter. The second considers masons, bricklayers and their tools, while the last examines the blacksmith. The balance between book’s sections is wildly uneven, with the emphasis clearly on the carpenter, which takes up most of the book.

From the outset, no expense has been spared when putting together Construction. The nearly 200 images are in colour and are a credit to the author and Amsterdam University Press. This lavish layout aligns with the book’s aim to draw attention to what are often background details, thus making it easier to follow the arguments; there is a good sense of harmony between text and image. Tutton’s kindness to the reader is extended to the glossary towards the end of the book, which is an excellent resource for architectural historians at any stage of their careers and I know is something I will be using far into the future. Picking out the images and apparatus is not to damn the book with faint praise: these elements are genuinely excellent.

Tutton has clearly examined each of the artworks with a keen eye, which is all the more admirable considering just how many there are. Each description is highly accurate and steeped in detail that reveals the author’s passion for the subject. In some ways, however, the book can be frustrating. Tutton never questions the nature of the representative act itself; indeed, the conflation of all artforms is in the title, as if images from antiquity can be analysed in the same way that a photograph can. When a medieval artist depicts a carpenter at work, are they actually depicting something they have seen or have they taken it from a model book of some sort? Tutton never really considers this question or the consequences of artistic representation, or even representative techniques from the period. At best, the artist’s voice is lost; at worst, older pictures are deemed to lack something in comparison to modern depictions, without contextualising the representative strategies at play, especially those made before the use of perspective.

The title of the book should be taken very literally since it perfectly reflects the content. Tutton’s book shows images of construction. The author describes each of the images, focusing on what is particularly important in each one, guiding the reader’s eye with some precision. But, for the most part, that is all there is. There are very few conclusions drawn about those images and their implications. At the end, Tutton does conclude that the process of construction, the tools and machinery involved, changed very little in the time period he describes, which only a book devoted to the longue durée of architectural history could demonstrate. But this is another description without enough depth to act as an act of analysis. Female workers are mentioned, possibly as construction workers and certainly as blacksmiths, but there is no discussion of gender within the construction process or why some depicted women in these roles but not many. Tutton’s experience is clearly profound and it would have been useful to get the benefit of the author’s thoughts in a much more discursive way.

Aside from this, I want to draw attention to a particular highlight. There is a long section within the chapter on the carpenter that includes several drawings from the German artist George Scharf. Tutton gives some brief context to these images of nineteenth-century London as seen through the eyes of the Bavarian artist, including the results of a construction accident at the British Museum’s Lycian Room. The series of images by a single artist creates a narrative where the thread running through each image is the construction site, thus painting an intimate and somewhat lost story of London in the process. It helps that the drawings are wonderful, and Tutton has made them available to a wider number of readers, many of whom no doubt did not get the opportunity to attend an exhibition of them at the Sir John Soane’s Museum in 2009. This wonderful small section is a microcosm of what is excellent and what is problematic about the book. The sheer number of images is both useful and generative, opening readers up to images that may have been unknown and in the process suggesting new lines of research. But Scharf’s chance to shine is achingly short and leaves the reader with a sense of what could have been: interest is piqued but ultimately left unsatisfied.

The focus on the images has meant certain mistakes remain throughout the book (for example, the Tres Riches Heures de Duc de Berry is described as “fourteenth-century”), so many in fact that it is difficult to recommend the book to undergraduates without offering a caveat that certain aspects should be double checked. The book’s structure is imbalanced as well. The two sections on the carpenter take up 120 pages, whereas the blacksmith receives fewer than ten. While there may be fewer images of blacksmiths available, the severe disparity gives the impression of a project that has ran out of steam rather than a strategic decision to structure the book in the way it has. It likely would have been better to remove the final section and incorporate some of its elements into tangential excursions elsewhere.

Despite this, I found the book to be useful and it is clearly a project done with a passionate engagement with the sources. While it is far from perfect, I am glad that it is on my shelf and for those interested in the history of construction, the tools and methods, I can recommend Tutton’s work.