The Georgian magazine – The Art of the Measured Drawing: In Conversation with George Saumarez Smith

January 21, 2022

DAVID ADSHEAD: We have your beautiful hook in front of us, but tell me how did it all start?

GEORGE SAUMAREZ SMITH: Almost exactly 25 years ago I was about to embark on a ten-day trip around England with two friends, Jane Frederick, a painter, and Francis Terry, an architect, and I thought I should buy myself a new sketchbook in readiness. The plan was to look at lots of country houses. Having acquired a little cloth-bound sketchbook from Cornelissen & Son, we set off to Norfolk, continued into Derbyshire and Yorkshire, and returned via the west coast. Jane drew landscapes and formal gardens and Francis experimented with different types of perspective and tricky station -points. I had always loved plans of buildings, so I just started drawing them and, having a tape measure with me, recorded the sizes of rooms, annotating the plans with their dimensions.

At the end of the trip, we sat down and looked at all our sketches and, as I remember it, Francis's and Jane's were on loose sheets of paper, and all slightly chaotic, while mine were neatly laid out in the sketchbook. 'they said 'one day maybe you'll have a whole stack of sketchbooks, full of drawings of buildings: and suggested that I should name the first one. Without giving it too much thought I wrote the name of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, on its spine.

I carried on doing measured drawings and then went back to university. I confess I found it quite difficult studying architecture at Edinburgh because thanks to my grandfather, Raymond Erith, and his pupil and later partner, Quinlan Terry, in whose office I had spent some time, the language of Classical architecture and traditional detailing had been part of my upbringing. I was expecting to continue to learn about these things at university but they proved almost entirely absent from the curriculum. Partly as a way of keeping sane, I carried on making measured drawings, though they progressed from those first holiday sketches - I realised that they would be much more useful if drawn accurately to scale. The pages and sketchbooks have been filling up ever since.

That first trip was in August 1996 and, when I realised during the pandemic that I wasn't going to be doing much traveling, the idea of distilling the contents of the sketchbooks into a single volume occurred to me. So that's really what the book is: 25 years' worth of fairly random drawings made on holidays and other trips. Anything I see that I think is elegant or well-designed I try quickly to make a little scale drawing of, and as a consequence, the sketchbooks have no particular internal rationale - a new drawing simply goes on the next empty page. Putting this book together has given me an opportunity to bring a little order from that chaos.

DA: How have you made your selections and to what schema?
GSS: I've divided the book into ten chapters and grouped the material thematically. The first, for instance, is devoted to elevations, sections and plans of buildings, the second to the all-important orders and their academic parts, the fifth looks at doors and windows and the eighth geometric patterns in floors and tiles - I think and hope there's a hierarchy. I have included views of buildings too. Here's a photograph of all the sketchbooks - there's Augustus and the most recent one Antoninus Pius, though I've started another since.

DA: You've got a lot of emperors still to go, and then I suppose there are all the usurpers! I hope bad emperors don't have a malign influence on your drawings.
GSS: I think I'm about a quarter of the way through the emperors, and given that it's taken 25 years to get so far I don't think I'm going to run out! Happily, an emperor's name doesn't have that effect. I'm about to come to Commodus, who was particularly wicked, though I confess my knowledge of the emperors is pretty sketchy. In my mind they take on their own personality depending on where they've been. Claudius, for instance, I took with me to Australia in about 1998 and a very interesting time he had going around the new world.

DA: How do you see your drawings fitting into the long tradition of measuring and representing architecture in this way?
GSS: I reflect in the book on the importance of measured drawings to architects over the centuries. The Italian Renaissance kicked off with architects making measured drawings of fragments from antiquity, all those pen and ink and red chalk drawings. Then there was Palladio of course, his influence has been enormous, not only through his own designs but also via the Quattro Libri and his illustrations of Vitruvius. So many people have published measured drawings since - all those treatises and pattern books from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. I think of Edwardian architectural practice too as being very heavily grounded in measured drawing. Lutyens's generation made and published them as a matter of course. The Practical Exemplar of Architecture, published by the Architectural Press between 1907 and 1927, was very varied and included Gothic Cathedrals, Medieval and vernacular buildings, and of course took a great interest in those of the Georgian period.

DA: An echo of Beaux-Arts principles of study and analysis?
GSS: Yes, that Edwardian tradition built on BeauxArts training in which fragments were measured in the first year, imaginative reconstructions based on those fragments made in the second, before freedom of design was won in the third. That important aspect of education and practice began to disappear sometime after the Second World War, although Liverpool University and some other schools of architecture continued making measured drawing an early first year exercise. At Edinburgh in the early '90s mine was the last intake to be tasked with making a measured drawing.

DA: Did you have any guidance or training in how to go about it? I made a measured drawing at architecture school too, but we were left entirely to our own devices which seemed peculiar to me at the time.
GSS: The same here, it was almost as though a box had been reluctantly ticked - 'it's good to do a bit of drawing, we've done that and can forget about it now'. We were just sent out into Edinburgh to choose something interesting. I chose part of that beautiful quad in the middle of the university, designed by Adam and completed by Playfair, whose work I really fell for.

DA: Do you think photography, the ubiquity of the camera, killed off the tradition of measuring buildings?
GSS: Partly, but changes in the practice of surveying have also played a part - when I first worked in an architect's office, when faced with a new project the first task would be to carry out a measured survey. Now you call up a digital survey company, but the drawings they produce tend to be pretty awful. It's a great pity, because the process of surveying a building is a very good way for an architect to get to know it. So, I think it fell out of education first and then out of practice, towards the end of the twentieth century as digital surveying took over. Though everybody recognises the value of measuring few people now do it, it is very unusual. If I say I keep sketches and measured drawings people are more likely to say 'it must be very useful' than 'that's a waste of time'. In the last ten years, if anybody, pretty much anywhere in the world, decides that it's worthwhile teaching students measured drawing techniques, they will probably pick up the phone and say 'can you help?' Drawing competitions, such as that run by the Traditional Architecture Group, provide a great stimulus and though for some entrants it may be a one-off exercise for others, I hope, measured drawing will become an habitual thing.

DA: What design benefits flow from making measured drawings?
GSS: I'm asked to design things all the time - maybe a church altar, a piece of furniture, or perhaps a very tight staircase in a new house - and you need to be ready for those things. Constantly studying and measuring fragments of buildings is I think the best way of training for those situations. For me it's a bit like an athlete training for a marathon or a musician practising their scales.

DA: Because it just gives you an instinctive feeling for the size, form and character of planforms and architectural elements?
GSS: Yes, so it's scale and size, which are not quite the same thing, but also construction, materials, texture, colour, all sorts of things. The other thing I would say about doing measured drawings is that because you've got a tape measure, sketchbook, scale rule and pencil in hand, it's a very physical thing. Before you can draw anything you have to clamber over the building, and touch it, and feel its surfaces. So, it's impossible to do a drawing say of a church door in Rome without feeling how hot the marble is as you run the tape measure over it. It's quite different from sitting on a stool and sketching something at a distance.

DA: What do you think about when you are drawing in the field, beyond those sentient aspects you have alluded to? Do you allow your mind to wanderto ponder on the life of a building through the centuries?
GSS: I try to do the drawings as quickly as possible, so I tend to concentrate wholly on the task in hand, only when it gets towards the end might I start thinking about its architect, who else might have measured it before me and the possible stories behind things. But I think that memory is terribly important in what one brings to bear in any design. Measured drawing helps enrich what is available in your mind. Though this stack of sketchbooks sits in the corner of my study, I don't really look at them very often because I feel that their contents are implanted in my experience, and I'm not really very interested in copying into my work things which I've measured. Occasionally I might see something that I think it would be very difficult to improve on and that might be used elsewhere.

DA: So they are less a library of ideas and details for future use in new designs than an ongoing connection with architecture and the exercising of a sort of memory muscle. What about the process of drawing, how do you make a start?
GSS: The first thing I do, before I've done any drawing at all, is to look at the building or part of the building, or fragment or whatever it is, and imagine it as a nicely laid out drawing on the page. I know that I could fit this or that in at 1: 10 scale with an elevation and plan and possibly with a section beside it. This might sound self-indulgent but ultimately, other than for the purpose of self-education, I suppose that's what the sketchbooks are. As to drawing techniques, that's changed over the years. I started using a dip pen, very deliberately trying to make drawings like the masters I admired, complete with time-consuming hatching - drawings that belonged in a particular tradition, but it felt increasingly anachronistic and I generally use an automatic pencil with a 2B lead in it these days. Keep turning it and it will stay sharp.

DA: How do you measure bigger buildings, you can't do that armed only with a ruler or spring tape? No wobbling about on the top of frighteningly tall ladders, like those grand tour architects measuring the remains of the Roman Forum, I hope.
GSS: I talk about that in the book too. So, for instance, if it is a brick building or built of regularly coursed stonework you can count courses. In those cases I will annotate the drawing with 'not measured'. In the case of an early nineteenth-century bank building with even stone courses, now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, I drew a two-metre scale rule as if propped up against it. I quite like the challenge of seeing how far up a metal tape can go before it collapses.

DA: Simon Houfe relates how his grandfather, Albert Richardson, had a blunderbuss pointed at him by an elderly lawyer early one morning as he was hanging from the façade of one of the Inns of Court, pencil, tape and sketchbook in hand. But he finished his measured drawing nonetheless! A US Sheriff once waved a handgun at me from an upper window when I was drawing Frank Lloyd Wright's Marin County Court building in California, apparently from 'a restricted hill'.
GSS: No scrapes like that, though sometimes measurements are made in very public places with curious passers-by. But it's not a sociable exercise. I'm left to plan family holidays and everyone knows that even if we have rented a nice house with a pool and there's someone selling ice-creams nearby I will have chosen a location within striking distance of good buildings and that I will disappear for hours on end, measuring and drawing them.

DA: Last reflections on putting the book together?
GSS: The new grouping of material reveals quite how much Classical buildings and their details have in common even if they are very distant in space and time and made from different materials, and the same is true of fittings and furniture. It's a testament not only to its enduring qualities but to the success of its dissemination. Ultimately, this is a book about process - almost a scientific one - as well as about drawing. I'm much too close to it to know how others will react but if its publication encourages people to pick up a pencil that will be reward enough.

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