Hugh Beattie’s recent paintings, currently exhibited at the Royal Opera Arcade in Mayfair, are a paean to the creative and enterprising spirit of London. There are few other cities in the world that have such a long history and yet are so open to bold, cutting edge architectural projects; the burgeoning skyline of the City in particular – with gherkins, cheese graters and walkie-talkies dwarfing Wren’s elegant churches – has changed beyond all recognition in the past few decades. Beattie looks at these well-known edifices with a fresh eye, homing in on the architectural features of time-worn stone and the powerful lines of the contemporary that bisect them to present a striking contrast.
Each canvas – there are thirty in total – juxtaposes the old and the new: ‘St Pauls v One New Change’, ‘Tower Chimneys v The Shard’, ‘St Edmund King v NatWest Tower’, ’All Hallows v Walkie-Talkie’. Yet however well one knows these buildings and their recognisable silhouettes the compositions, cropped and sharply angled, make you double take and consider them anew. Reflections distort classical mouldings, pedimental sculpture is dramatically framed by the stark geometrical glass behind it. Against such dynamic minimalism the old comes alive, while the new is put into historical context.
Beattie conveys the difference in the texture of the paint and his technique: the old stone speckled and rough, the glass and steel smooth and shiny. He enjoys the unexpected interactions between these elements – in ‘Odeon v Post Office’ for instance the classical frieze is echoed by graffiti on the wall behind and a film poster below – and in almost all the paintings there are small signs of life, a plane or helicopter, a small face at the window, that recall the millions of lives lived in and around these beautiful and imposing structures.
The exhibition is supported by Alec Forshaw, author of ‘New City’ and former urban planner, who will introduce the exhibition on 2nd December. It is a portrait of London at a historically important moment and, in the words of art historian Ayla Lepine, ‘a kind of urban collective portraiture’ that reminds us of our unique and important multi-layered heritage.
Hugh L. Beattie’s ‘London Ancient & Modern’ is at La Galleria, The Royal Opera Arcade, Pall Mall, London SW1Y 4UY, until 5 December, 11-6 with late view and talk on Wednesday 2 December; see www.jhlb.co.uk for further details.