St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

August 6, 2013

st marys cathedral

Milini 150gsm A4 sketchbook; graphite pencils H and B; 6×8″ sketch using a 4×5″ Albertian veil; 40-60mins, lunchtime

I swore off the complexity of the very Victorian Romanesque Queen Victoria Building today, only to take up an equally complex Victorian (English Geometric Gothic) cathedral, St Mary’s Cathedral (1865). A bright, clear, cloudless day at lunchtime. The strong shadows and distinct colors from yellow, to ochre and white reminded me of the cathedral masonry rendered by English watercolorist Thomas Girtin and his rival-colleague, J.M.W. Turner(1). I was on my to the location where J.J. Hilder did his watercolor of the Art Gallery of NSW in Art Gallery Road, but the vantage point he used c1912 which gives on to the building is now obscured by trees.

I would have liked to have drawn the figure of the Archibald Fountain (1932) closer to the transept spire at left, but I had to get out of harm’s way in terms of milling pedestrians. Judging from historical photos taken in the 1940s, this western facade of the cathedral has only recently been opened up and freed of trees since the controversial removal of diseased old trees by Sydney City Council. My father sketched this view one lunchtime more than sixty years ago from more or less this vantage point, but I can only recall the sandstone building and not the trees.

I went beyond the border at right and left and below because I liked the strong diagonals of the buttresses of the transept towers (left), the park people at right and the ground plane of the footpath at the base, which, by the way, was glossy enough to reflect some of the light from the cathedral building (see photo below). I didn’t go for the very 19th-century option of strong dark shadow masses in the foreground to accentuate a heavenly, divine sunlight on the building facade (taking symbolism a bit too far, especially in this day and age of current government enquiries into the church’s dealings with paedophile priests).

This is only a brief Light Sketch. A studio Sustained Sketch, probably much larger, would explore the relative distances from the sitter of the three sculptures (Diana with huge bow far left, man wrestling ram at left and another man wrestling a centaur at far right. Girtin or Turner would make much of the variations in the sandstone, from bright light to dark shadow. I’m aware that the right spires are in brighter light than the towers at left, even though they are both the same distance (more or less) from the sitter. In any case, I made the Archibald Fountain closer in space than the cathedral, so that has to count in my favour. The transept towers (left) are somewhat dumpier than they ought to be and I’m not so worried about the spires at right going out of the picture frame. To sketch the whole building will have been to trangress Turner’s idea of the “compressed field”, opening it up to much more than 40-50 degrees of the field of vision from left to right. A studio Sustained Sketch would require a ruler to make my horizontals more accurate than I’ve sketched them. Unfortunately the lit plinth areas of the fountain remain unconvincing and I notice in hindsight that the width of the granite bowl of the sculpture is incorrect. What’s probably required next is a combination of hyperfocus sketches of both the sandstone spires and the granite sculpture, but this works okay as a preliminary sketch.
















(1) Compare the play of light on masonry in Girtin’s Ely Cathedral with that of Turner’s St Anselm’s Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, both c1794.


Smith, Greg. Girtin: The Art of Watercolor. London: Tate Publishing: 16,33.

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