GIOVANNI CASINI - The Courtauld Institute of Art


Search for:

GIOVANNI CASINI // Painting Maps: Richard Hamilton’s Paintings of the Early 1950s and Urban Planning in Post-War Britain


Starting from Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the Live Architecture Exhibition, which was organised as a section of the Festival of Britain (1951), this paper seeks to contextualise his paintings of the early 1950s in the architectural discourse of post-war British society and in the centrality of town planning within the reconstruction effort. I read architectural models a­s diagrams, in parallel to Hamilton’s fascination with the photographic medium, with a specific interest in the two opposite poles of microscopic and aerial photography. Relating the bird’s-eye view to the history of modernism and situating Hamilton’s paintings in the lineage Cézanne-Cubism-Abstract Art, I discuss the meaning of a­bstraction in such works, connecting it to the diagram and theories of perception. I use this framework to shed new light on Hamilton’s ambiguous approach to abstraction and figuration and offer a new take on a rather underestimated part of his artistic production.


The Festival of Britain, a five-month series of cultural events and displays, was organised in London in 1951. Presented to the public as a tonic for the nation, the festival’s programme was intended to showcase the recovery of Britain after the Second World War and provided opportunities for established and emerging artists to produce and exhibit new work. Among these artists was the young Richard Hamilton, who was then completing the final year of his degree at the Slade School of Fine Art and just beginning to participate in activities associated with the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and the fledgling Independent Group. Hamilton’s contribution to the Festival, the exhibition Growth and Form which he curated at the ICA, has received significant scholarly attention in recent years.[1] However, Growth and Form was not the only way Hamilton participated in the Festival. Rather, his contributions extended to an additional venue, the Live Architecture Exhibition at Poplar, for which he created architectural models in the Town Planning and Building Research pavilions.

These lesser-known contributions deserve additional attention. In this paper, I consider how they reveal many of Hamilton’s theoretical and formal concerns at a seminal moment in his career. Marked by an interest in theories of perception and in the representation of movement, these works, far from being a series of side-jobs for a struggling art student, share many of the qualities explored by Hamilton throughout his paintings of the early 1950s. In order to more fully situate these works within his oeuvre, I consider Hamilton’s clear engagement with town planning, then frequently discussed at the ICA in visual terms. In so doing, I read architectural models as diagrams in the context of scientific discourses within post-war British art and society, in parallel to Hamilton’s penchant for the photographic medium. Focusing on his interest in both microscopic and aerial photography, I discuss the meaning of abstraction in such works, connecting it to the idea of the diagram and theories of perception within the history of modernism. Hamilton’s awareness of art historical precedents such as László Moholy-Nagy and Paul Klee, and his knowledge of scientific research, came together in his quest to understand the very nature of visual perception. Taken together, Hamilton’s composite approach to abstraction and figuration offers another take on a somewhat underestimated part of his artistic production.

The Live Architecture Exhibition was held in the area of Stepney and Poplar, in the neighbourhood known as Lansbury Estate. The general intent of the exhibition was to promote the post-war reconstruction effort and showcase the successes of the Labour government-sponsored New Towns Movement.[2] The reconstruction of this heavily bombed area was intertwined with the Festival of Britain, as its first building was started in December 1949, after it had been chosen as the location for the exhibition. Construction works prioritised the buildings regarded as the most visible and central to the life of the local community such as the primary school, the shopping centre or the Health Centre. When the exhibition finally opened in May 1951, most buildings had been completed. In addition to the actual permanent component, it included two additional temporary venues, the Town Planning and Building Research pavilions. Through a designer friend working on both pavilions, Ronald Avery, Hamilton was recommended to the committee organising the exhibition, in the following terms:

The modelmaker must have a knowledge of building construction and also be an artist capable of finishing the interiors. Hamilton executed a series of models for the Ministry of Works demonstrating in detail, thermal insulation in structure and as he has the capacity to deal with the models for the Research Exhibition, he is the obvious person to ensure a high standard of finish and technical accuracy.[3]

Indeed, in 1947 Hamilton completed an Army Education Corps Instructors course and a camouflage course, where he had made models of landscapes from an aerial viewpoint.[4]

Hamilton’s involvement can also be attributed to the intensified interest in architecture and town planning within the ICA, specifically as the Festival coincided with the eighth conference of the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), held in Britain in July 1951.[5] Among the prominent international architects who came to London was Le Corbusier, who gave a speech at the opening of Hamilton’s exhibition Growth and Form, where he significantly stated that:

This rich new vocabulary provides a good means for the discovery of the visible and the invisible universe; it allows the best in art to find all the new forms of these natural conceptions and harmonies, and to lift the spirit by poetical means […] The themes shown in this exhibition are at the disposal of the painter, and painting will be done, of that I am quite sure.[6]

City planning was also the theme of a private reception at the ICA.[7] The Planning Sub-Committee of the Live Architecture Exhibition, which undertook the initial planning of the displays at Lansbury, included W. G. Holford, Professor of Town Planning in the University of London. Then the preeminent public voice of planning for a younger generation in Britain, Holford opened a small exhibition organised by the ICA in September 1951 titled London – an Adventure in Town Planning.[8] He also edited and wrote the introduction to a Town and Country Planning Textbook published in 1950. Holford’s conception of a town planner’s function was multidisciplinary and explicitly aestheticised. Hamilton’s own attitude as an artist-technician, who had a significant understanding of product design, commercial display and even industrial engineering, arguably shared much with Holford’s vision as expressed in the following statement:[9]

The function of planning is the orderly drawing together – or planning – of all the threads that determine the shape and colour and character of our physical environment, so as to create a pattern or design which is pleasing and effective and which corresponds to that inner sense of fitness and wholeness which has always been part of the spirit of progressive man […] Planning itself is a co-ordinating process, a combined operation on many fronts at once.[10]

The spirit of collaboration described by Holford, as well as the visual aspect of planning which viewed the city as a coherent coming together of elements, almost like an abstract composition, show how ideas like ‘visual planning’ and ‘townscape’ were in the air and likely shared by Hamilton.


Fig. 1
Interior of the Town Planning Pavilion, Live Architecture Exhibition, Poplar (WORK 25/209 FOB/3856). Image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Archives, Kew.


As yet unexamined documents in the National Archives, Kew, provide compelling details regarding Hamilton’s employment for the Live Architecture Exhibition. Contracts show that he was hired to make models of several cities after maps for the Town Planning pavilion (1951, Fig. 1), including Stevenage, East Kilbride, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield, Coventry, Speke and Cambridge. Hamilton was also asked to ‘execute and supply nine model timber roof frames: five of which are to comply with pre-war practice and 4 to be of post-war design’ and some thermal insulation models for the Building Research section (1951, Fig. 2).[11] The Town Planning exhibition was curated by Jacqueline Tyrwhitt, an architect and urbanist close to the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion and involved in CIAM. Hamilton himself considered Giedion’s Mechanisation Takes Command among the most important sources for his own work, having executed a series of etchings on the theme of the Reaper, based on the repetition of the simple contrasting forms of the agricultural machine taken from Giedion’s book, while a student at the Slade.[12] Tyrwhitt decided to feature mostly current or realised projects, with a focus on land use and the control of competition for space. Her vision of town planning was holistic, placing communities at its core. Existing scholarship on the exhibition does not acknowledge Hamilton’s contribution, but points out that several artists were approached: the little-known painter Stephen Bone was selected to realise a curved panorama titled Battle for the Land, on the theme of the transition from agricultural landscape to industrial and urban landscape, while the architect and planner Tom Mellor was hired for the model of the imaginary town of Avoncaster, intended as a statement of good town planning.[13]


Fig. 2
Models of roofs made by Richard Hamilton, Building Research Pavilion, Live Architecture Exhibition, Poplar (WORK 25/209 FOB/4052). Image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Archives, Kew.


Urban planning was one of the many interests Hamilton cultivated in the incredibly vibrant cultural and artistic scene of post-war London. Particular to that historical moment and to Hamilton’s development as an artist was an active engagement with science and technology coming from the liberal humanities. Indeed, while working on the architectural projects discussed so far, Hamilton was also developing the exhibition Growth and Form (1951, Fig. 3), which opened not long after the Live Architecture Exhibition, on 4 July 1951. Growth and Form took its title from the biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s 1917 text On Growth and Form, which was published in a new edition in 1942.[14] While the exhibition at the ICA drew more specifically on the microbiological imagery presented in the book, it shared with the exhibition in Poplar the inclusion of multimedia installations, employing large-scale models and enlarged photographs. They also had a similar aim to make visible and accessible to the audience scientific and technical research, to show what is normally either too small or hidden. A constant shift between the microscopic – microbiological units or the structure of a building – and the macroscopic levels – towns and landscape – characterises both. In a proposal he wrote for Growth and Form, Hamilton made the following statement:

The painter and the sculptor have much to gain from the enlargement of their world experience by an appreciation of forms in nature beyond their immediate visual environment. It is the enlarged environment opened by scientific studies that we would reveal for its visual qualities.[15]

This ‘enlarged environment’ pertains to both exhibitions. Two years later, on 29 October 1953, Hamilton gave a seminar as part of a course on Aesthetic Problems of Contemporary Art at the ICA. His lecture was titled New Sources of Form and dealt precisely with the extension of the visual horizon both towards the microscopic (micro-photography) and the macroscopic (long-range astronomy).[16]


Fig. 3
Richard Hamilton, Growth and Form, Installation shot of the exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1951. © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.


His paintings realised between 1951 and 1952 seem to give a visual expression to the tension between these two divergent levels. In Particular System (1951, Fig. 4) a sea urchin and a microorganism coexist with what seems to be a huge glass vessel.[17] In Respective (1951) a bull’s spermatozoon is superimposed on the grid – a feature of all these works – and its tail is geometrically rectified into four different segments, making it lose its organic quality. A similar structure characterises d’Orientation (1952, Fig. 5). In this case the grid becomes prominent and appears to coincide with the flat canvas, while a medusa jellyfish’s manubrium floats across the limpid overview space. Not far from the centre, this dangling shape seems to interact with the grid, locking with and encircling one of the locational dots. Another smaller painting once owned by architectural critic Reyner Banham and called Refraction (1951) offers a non-scientific visualisation of the effects of refraction on a sea urchin. The phenomenon of refraction is most commonly observed with light passing through optical lenses, while in Hamilton’s painting it is shown across a biological unit.


Fig. 4
Richard Hamilton, Particular System, 1951, Oil on canvas, 101.5 x 127 cm. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Long-term loan of Rita Donagh Hamilton, 2014. © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.


Hamilton’s approach to the grid, as well as the biomorphic imagery of his paintings, certainly relates to On Growth and Form, especially the section dealing with Thompson’s own method of transformations, showing the changes in the shape of animal skulls and other structures on a Cartesian grid. Furthermore, regarding Hamilton’s exhibition Growth and Form, Victoria Walsh  described the ‘paradoxical visual relation between the geometric grid and the biomorphic form of the cellular structure’, which is so prominent both in the exhibition and in these paintings, as follows:

[a] visual punning intent on teasing out one of the most topical and contested debates of the late 1940s and early 1950s in design and architecture circles: the theoretical tenets of Functionalism represented by Corbusier and those of his detractors, first represented by New Humanism which argued for a more organic and picturesque architecture.[18]

Hamilton’s work for the Live Architecture Exhibition confirms this interpretation by showing that he was aware of, if not directly involved in, architectural debates in Britain at the time regarding post-war reconstruction. The sense of compositions made of carefully planned elements, using Holford’s words, through ‘the orderly drawing together – or planning – of all the threads that determine the shape and colour and character of our physical environment,’ makes Hamilton’s paintings similar to architectural plans. Bearing in mind Respective and d’Orientation, a useful experiment would be imagining them placed horizontally, similarly to the Steinbergian flatbed picture. Interestingly, Steinberg noted that we can still hang Rauschenberg’s pictures ‘just as we tack up maps and architectural plans,’ though they have a completely different meaning as he explained.[19] In some way, Hamilton’s two paintings looked at from this perspective, have similarities to the map of a city, with its focal points marked by squares and crossroads. The bird’s-eye viewpoint is a requirement for this kind of representation. The ‘tabular’ nature of Hamilton’s paintings is already visible, marking the beginning of an interest in topographical representations that would acquire an explicitly political meaning in later works like Maps of Palestine (2009).[20]


Fig. 5
Richard Hamilton, d’Orientation, 1952, Oil on hardboard, 117 x 160 cm. Private collection. © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.


If we consider an installation shot of the interior of the Town Planning pavilion (1951, Fig. 1), we can see that the background wall was entirely covered by a bird’s-eye photograph of a city, with its system of intersecting roads and blocks. This is a vertical photograph which can be used as a basis for mapping. It is close to a map, but without any interpretive or abstracting process applied to the real configuration. After the Second World War, the technology and flexibility of the aerial view greatly improved and the use of aerial photographs became commonplace among city planners.[21] It is important to underline, as we contextualise Hamilton’s paintings of the early 1950s, that the conceptual shift between a supposedly objective representation of a segment of landscape and the processed, standardised image of it represented by a map seems to have attracted his attention. Hamilton’s critical attitude to photography as an objective medium of representation provided much material for reflection throughout his career, especially after it became a central focus of his artistic practice from the mid-1960s. At this stage, bird’s-eye photography seemed to offer an enlargement of perspective that Hamilton, as a painter well-aware of the history of modernism, associated with Cubism. In a later Note on Photography, he wrote that:

The Cubists had adopted a multiplicity of viewpoints of their subject by moving around it. In the 1950s we became aware of the possibility of seeing the whole world, at once, through the great visual matrix that surrounds us; a synthetic, ‘instant’ view.[22]

He was referring to the mass media, which allowed artists to build up imagery and iconography through mass advertisement, publicity, fashion, pop culture icons, and styling, surrounding everyday life with a seductive and glamorous consumerist appeal. Hamilton’s realisation of the contemporary experience of reality as mainly photographic, ‘reportage rather than art photography in the main,’ might help us understand the artist’s ambivalent attitude towards aerial photography, which, in Giedion’s words, ‘has opened to us whole new aspects of the world.’[23]

Giedion described the town planner as a specialist ‘able to go over his plan with almost tactile perceptiveness, sensing the contrasting character of its districts as plainly as though they were velvet or emery beneath his fingers.’[24] A model of a city, such as those Hamilton made, is a three-dimensional diagram representing what is considered relevant to the plan of a city. It is comparable to a map, but it seems to allow the observer a more concrete and less purely intellectual overview. As specified in all the contracts, every model had to include details of roads, footpaths, rivers and railways, woods, parks and agricultural areas. Special emphasis was placed by texture and colour on shops, schools, industrial areas and housing. Communal spaces such as churches, town halls, cinemas, railways and bus stations were listed as features to be emphasised. Even though photographic records of Hamilton’s models are missing, it is not hard to imagine Hamilton exercising the ‘tactile perceptiveness’ described by Giedion in his translation of the two-dimensional plan to the three-dimensional model, processing the initial aerial view to a more abstract degree. While undertaking this work, Hamilton might have realised the pretension towards totality claimed by the aerial viewpoint and how, in fact, it is merely a selection of limited arrays of information that is translated into the model of a city or its map. The artist would explicitly address the issue of manipulating photographic images in relation to (human) landscape in his works of the late 1960s such as Whitley Bay (1965) or People (1968).


Fig. 6
Page from László Moholy-Nagy’s book Vision in Motion with reproduction of his photograph From the Radio Tower, Berlin, 1928. © P. Theobald & Co., Chicago.


In the early 1950s, Hamilton was still engaging with the modernist faith in the enlarged environment opened up by technological progress. Aerial photography was, indeed, also discussed in László Moholy-Nagy’s Vision in Motion, published in 1947. The book, a sort of appeal for a coming together of art and science in a shared experimental approach, was highly influential inside the Independent Group and for Hamilton, and was widely used for the richness of visual material it offered.[25] Aerial photographs of Earth patterns published in Vision in Motion help us understand how the tactile approach described by Giedion could be shared by planning and painting. One of Moholy-Nagy’s own photographs in the book (1947, Fig. 6) can be identified as a possible source for the ‘centres of vision’ which characterise Hamilton’s paintings of the early 1950s such as Particular System or Respective. It is again a bird’s-eye view whose subject dissolves into geometric shapes and lines. Moreover, a significant excerpt from the text outlines the need for an overall point of view in Cubism to effectively render the object on the canvas:

The next step in the development of cubism was the bird’s-eye view, giving a more inclusive vista. To see an object frontally means to see it in elevation. From above not only the elevation can be seen, but also the plan and some of the sides. Also from above, the original shapes are seen with greater clarity than in the central perspective-vistas and vanishing point renderings which distort the real proportions. One sees ‘truer’. Instead of an egg shape one sees the undistorted sphere; instead of an oval, the circle.[26]

For Moholy-Nagy, Cubism epitomised his concept of vision in motion. It is not hard to relate this description to Hamilton’s interest in Cubism and to his paintings as they appear and as they have been contextualised so far. Hamilton’s engagement with the historical avant-gardes at the beginning of the 1950s went beyond a fine art student’s standard art historical training. Hamilton connected his attention for Cubism at the time to his research on ‘surface integrity and represented form.’[27] His pursuit of valid forms of ‘analysis’ was:

[…] frustrated by a growing awareness that the word analytical as used here [in ‘Analytical Cubism’], is one of many terms beloved by art critics that function nicely as labels but which turn out to be somewhat misleading semantically. If the Cubists were finding ways to describe the experience of moving around a subject then intuition played a greater part in their notations than analysis and logic.[28]

Since for Hamilton ‘visual description of spectator motion is more complex than subject motion,’ Cubism had tried to deal with a more difficult and fascinating problem than Futurism, whose artists had investigated how to render dynamism and movement – or in Hamilton’s words ‘subject motion’ – in painting and sculpture.[29] Nevertheless, Hamilton’s knowledge of the Italian avant-garde movement reveals his growing proximity to Banham, who discussed Futurism in an article published in 1955 and in his doctoral thesis completed at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1958 under the supervision of Nikolaus Pevsner, which then became his well-known 1960 book Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.[30]  Banham became a prominent figure among the Independent Group, informally founded within the ICA in the autumn 1952 and in which Hamilton took part from the beginning.

‘My paintings at this time were “abstract”; a few surviving examples demonstrate one clear preoccupation – the use of minimal elements to articulate the picture surface.’[31] Describing his paintings retrospectively in 1982, Hamilton wanted to relate his work of the early 1950s to major modernist issues going back to Cézanne and Cubism. Still generally accepting Alfred Barr’s lineage Cézanne-Cubism-Geometrical Abstract Art, Hamilton focused on the structural devices developed by Cézanne, viewing them in relation to abstract qualities in his own work:

These paintings took a major characteristic of Cézanne’s method, that of structuring the surface through straight linear relationships, and investigated it in a very narrow sense. The theoretical arguments justifying the primacy of the painting as surface had been much discussed in the early part of this century – considerations which had led to an assumption that the logical consequence of Cézanne’s example must be a commitment to the perfect integrity of the painted surface; so ‘abstract’ painting was granted its motivation. In my own student musings on these questions this hypothesis appeared, by observation, to be fallacious.[32]

Reading Cézanne’s work in 1982 Hamilton applied a formalist approach resonant with Clement Greenberg’s views, popularised and criticised in Britain in the late 1950s by Lawrence Alloway.[33] Coincidentally, the American art critic was publishing texts on Cézanne at the same time that Hamilton was painting his abstract canvases.[34] However, the interpretation of Cézanne as concerned with surface values was not particularly widespread at that time so that no influence on Hamilton can be claimed. That said, in his influential book Abstract Painting, published in November 1951, Thomas Hess saw in Cézanne a positive solution to the tension between object and surface: ‘by breaking up the surface, by making each section of paint insist upon its place in the visible scheme, the artist exalts the two-dimensionality of his work.’[35] Furthermore, when he started using facet-planes to articulate the surface, reflecting on Cézanne and hermetic Cubism in his speculation on the border between true flatness and sense of space, Hamilton was likely aware of the discussions around Cézanne occurring in England at the beginning of the 1950s among other contemporary artists, particularly the abstract art milieu.[36] The connection between Cézanne and abstraction was made clear in an influential 1943 publication, Erle Loran’s Cézanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs. Loran explained that ‘the extraordinary influence that Cézanne has had on Abstract art is markedly bound up with his abandonment of scientific perspective.’[37] Hamilton himself stated that ‘having an unfashionable […] predisposition towards an illusory representational space it was likely that perspective would form a major part of my student interests.’[38] The most striking aspect of Loran’s book is, moreover, his attempt to explain through schematic diagrams crucial issues in Cézanne’s compositions like perspective and distortion in relation to the structuring of space, demonstrating how even a painting by Cézanne could be reduced in his opinion to a diagram or a scheme.

The diagrammatic aspect of Hamilton’s paintings did not go unnoticed at the time. When the artist exhibited some of his recent works in 1955 at the Hanover Gallery, Banham, who reviewed the show, retrospectively clustered them as concerned with ‘the problem of representing or describing the relationship between object and moving observer.’[39] Banham and the other outstanding reviewer, Alloway, by then very involved in the Independent Group too, titled their articles Vision in Motion and Re Vision respectively, acknowledging on Hamilton’s behalf the influence of Moholy-Nagy’s book and the focus on visual perception. Banham effectively summed up the steps Hamilton had gone through in these works: ‘(1) the creation of a theoretical space, (2) its population by symbols of life, and (3) the involvement of the spectator.’[40] The more figurative canvases Hamilton had painted in 1954, Trainsition III (1954), Trainsition IIII (1954, Fig. 7), Carapace (1954), Re Nude (1954), Still Life? (1954) and no longer existing works such as Super-Exposition, Trainsition I and II, were also exhibited at the Hanover Gallery. Banham’s description can help us understand what Super-Exposition looked like: ‘The last and the largest of these perspective diagrams, is also the easiest to follow, as the viewpoint advances step by step from inner to outer space and up an inclined plane, so that the lateral vanishing-points converge, and also rise.’[41] Banham saw it as a sort of turning point, also because of its architectural setting (a window and a door were outlined), before the Trainsition series introduced for the first time a more recognisable landscape.


Fig. 7
Richard Hamilton, Trainsition IIII, 1954, Oil on panel, 91.4 x 121.9 cm. Tate. © R. Hamilton. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019.


It is not coincidental that Banham explicitly described Hamilton’s paintings as ‘perspective diagrams’. According to art historians John Bender and Michael Marrinan, ‘a diagram is a proliferation of manifestly selective packets of dissimilar data correlated in an explicitly process-oriented array that has some of the attributes of a representation but is situated in the world like an object.’[42] A diagram in this sense is a flexible tool of research characterised by multiple viewpoints as the result of presenting ‘arrays’ rather than legislating the single view of a complete spatial environment. Hamilton’s abstract paintings are similarly lacking a dominant point of view. They are built instead upon correlations between disjointed elements, in some cases simple dots, in others elementary biological units, always presented on a flat planar surface. As noted by Bender and Marrinan, systems of perspective developed through history are ways of formalising relationships in the world. Hamilton investigated the issues of perception, perspectival systems, and more broadly different approaches to presenting visual information and data throughout his career.

In his discussion of ‘diagrammatic visuality’ in relation to Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, and Guillaume Apollinaire, David Joselit has underlined the importance of the textual component in their work. Furthermore, he has explained how, in the age of cinema, their subversion of the word/image dualism was a way of dealing with the concurrent epistemological crisis, through the creation of a ‘spectacular heteroglossia’ or the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech within a single language.[43] Well-aware of the work of Marcel Duchamp, whose studies for the Large Glass bear an evident similarity to Hamilton’s biomorphic imagery, it is not unlikely that Hamilton was also familiar with Picabia’s mechanomorphic subjects.[44] Diagrammatic visuality occupies an unstable grey area between figuration and abstraction to which Hamilton’s paintings of the early 1950s also belong. Indeed, they use a hybrid artistic language, an idiom in which the line, contour and drawing have an important function. Hamilton’s paintings, moving from the abstract space of the blank canvas to minimal traces of figuration, present a sophisticated visual language, or a system, whose key is deliberately omitted. I have argued elsewhere that Hamilton’s paintings under discussion represent the scaffolding beneath the figuration process and related this investigation to Hamilton’s training at the Slade School under William Coldstream’s directorship.[45] In the Trainsition paintings the diagrammatic quality is even more explicit because of the arrows suggesting the direction of movement.

Hamilton’s quest to investigate problems of perception and vision progressively focused on movement, seen as the condition when they are somehow tested. Hamilton was also interested in the relationship between sensation and perception. New tools were supplied in the 1950 book by the American scientist James J. Gibson, The Perception of the Visual World.[46] It was Alloway who alerted Hamilton to it. In Gibson’s book, as noted by Mellor, there was ‘a stress on the visual reading of the entire environment, what Gibson called “the totality of clues”, often from an aerial vantage point, scanning organic and manmade textures for depth and meaning.’[47] Gibson received funding from the US Navy to research the problems of landing fast combat aircraft on aircraft carriers at sea. This is the reason for pictures where aerial oblique views are analysed in relation to a spectator in motion and to what he sees. Gibson would go on to develop what is known today as ‘bottom-up theory’, suggesting that perception involves innate mechanisms forged by evolution and that no learning is required, making sensation coincide with perception.[48] Hamilton appropriated Gibson’s diagrams (1950, Fig. 8) of an ‘active observer’ in a speeding train with spots of fixation and velocity of flow marked with arrows in his 1954 paintings Trainsition III and IIII (1954, Fig. 7). Hamilton titled these paintings ‘Trainsition’ as a pun on ‘Train sit I on’ and ‘Transition’, referring to his frequent train trips from London to Newcastle when he started teaching there in 1953. He described Trainsition IIII as an expression of ‘a particular visual phenomenon of motion perspective, the apparent rotation of a visual field around a point of focus when the eye is moving significantly in relation to a space.’[49] As can be understood from Gibson’s diagram (1950, Fig. 8) showing ‘the gradient of flow looking to the right when the observer fixates a spot on the terrain’, everything in front of the tree in the middle distance seems to move from left to right, whereas the direction is inverted behind the point of focus. Therefore, the arrows in Hamilton’s painting change direction accordingly. Furthermore, Gibson discussed the creation of a theoretical space combining all the different visual fields in motion in a bi-dimensional diagram, which is related by the author to ‘painters who wished to represent a large sector of the visual world on a picture-plane.’[50] This leads to a fascinating intellectual speculation on the possibility of effectively representing the sort of space that Cubism had pursued, which seems somehow unexpected in a scientific publication. [51]


Fig. 8
Motion perspective diagrams from James J. Gibson’s The Perception of the Visual World. © Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA.


Furthermore, diagrammatic figuration was also explored in Paul Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook, which was finally published in English in 1953, but probably known to Hamilton before.[52] The perspectival structure, in particular, seems schematically quoted from some of Klee’s examples. Trainsition III features what Klee called ‘the shifting vertical axis in relation to a subject (spectator) moving left to right,’ in the case the spectator has moved toward the left.[53] Klee’s work was discussed among contemporary artists and critics. Hamilton looked at Klee in some of his etchings realised in 1951. In the same year the critic and art historian David Sylvester started lecturing at the Slade while Hamilton was still a student there, and his topic for that year was ‘Klee, Cubism and Architecture’.[54] Also delivered at the ICA in October 1951, his lecture expanded on an article he had published in the Architectural Review in February 1951.[55] Sylvester’s concern was the relationship between architecture and painting, with particular attention to modern art. Sylvester saw the Cubists as the main example of ‘classic’ modern artists, who used architecture as a means of organizing forms in space and of communicating a state of mind through the inherent expressiveness of shapes and their relations: ‘Indeed, in the non-illusionistic language of modern painting, it is possible to create geometric designs whose function is identical with that of invented architecture in illusionistic painting without their having any representational significance whatever.’[56] In his analysis, Sylvester finally singled out Klee as an example and a source of inspiration for contemporary architects: as Klee did, the modern architect should seek to create ‘organic forms and relations’ not as a superimposed ornament, but as part of a ‘total structure which objectifies forces and laws.’[57] This consideration brings us back to the centrality of architectural discourse in the early years of the ICA, and, within that discourse, the importance of town planning and the necessary skills it required in the post-war British context. Cities had to be developed like a painting by Klee, which is not ‘a building, an established and complete entity’ but ‘an organism in growth.’[58] Moreover, Klee had shown how diagrams could be used in painting to create a new type of space, which refused a single viewpoint and demanded the engagement of the spectator, in a way which is similar to how we read maps.

Hamilton was very consciously addressing issues of perception in his works of the early 1950s, trying to deal with major artistic questions such as figuration and abstraction. His intention to render reality in a thoroughly inclusive way had first considered how shifting the perspective – by adopting the bird’s-eye perspective – could allow a synoptic view. The work he did for the Festival of Britain shows clearly how the ‘new landscape’ made available by technology and science had modified the way people related to the outside world. His overlooked contribution to the Live Architecture Exhibition is connected with this inevitable change of perspective and enlarged vision. Moving on from that experience, which completes and interacts with the contemporary Growth and Form exhibition, Hamilton then realised that movement was needed to fully apprehend the real world and therefore tried to express on the canvas a reality in flux. After the extreme simplification and ‘abstraction’ of the paintings made in 1951-1952, Hamilton was ready to face new complex subjects and eventually go back to more figurative painting, where he could apply the ‘skills’ he had acquired during the previous years through his research on perception, ‘diagrammatic visuality’ and subjective representation.



Giovanni Casini is a Leonard A. Lauder Fellow in Modern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He holds an MA and a PhD from The Courtauld Institute of Art. In 2016 Giovanni was a Fellow at the Center for Italian Modern Art (CIMA) in New York and the Guggenheim Museum’s 2017-2018 Hilla Rebay International Curatorial Fellow. In addition to his expertise and work on the interwar years, Giovanni has conducted research and published on art from the 1950s in England, Italy, and France.


[1] Growth and Form was reconstructed in the 2014 Tate retrospective. On the exhibition, see Victoria Walsh, ‘Seahorses, Grids and Calypso: Richard Hamilton’s Exhibition Making in the 1950s’, in Mark Godfrey, Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli (eds.), Richard Hamilton [exh. cat.] (London: Tate Modern, 2014), 61-75. See also Isabelle Moffat, ‘”A Horror of Abstract Thought”: Postwar Britain and Hamilton’s 1951 “Growth and Form” Exhibition’, October, vol. 94, The Independent Group (Autumn, 2000), 89-112 and Catherine Jolivette, Landscape, Art and Identity in 1950s Britain (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009), 114-120.
[2] An account of the Live Architecture Exhibition is ‘The Lansbury Estate: Introduction and the Festival of Britain Exhibition’, in Hermione Hobhouse (ed.), Survey of London, vols. 43-44 (Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs), (London, 1994), 212–223. British History Online, accessed 2 July 2019. See the new edition of the guide: Harding McGregor Dunnett, (ed.), 1951 Exhibition of Architecture: Guide to the Exhibition of Architecture, Town Planning and Building Research (London: Routledge, 2017) and Alan Power’s introduction to it.
[3] Avery’s letter can be found in ‘Three Models of Towns (Stevenage, East Kilbride, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield)’. P1/D/ie. ig and 4m. WORK 25/273, C 3/1117.
[4] See Fanny Singer, ‘Chronology’, in Godfrey, Schimmel, Todoli, 308.
[5] For the relevance of town planning at CIAM 8, whose theme was ‘the core’, see Eric Mumford, The CIAM Discourse on Urbanism, 1928-1960 (Cambridge, Mass. & London: MIT Press, 2000), 201-215.
[6] Quoted in Jolivette, 124.
[7] See Anne Massey, Out of the Ivory Tower: The Independent Group and Popular Culture, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 44: ‘The theme, “The Hearth of the City”, considered an American-inspired system of urban planning.’
[8] See Massey 2013, 44: ‘The civic design staff and students of the School of Architecture of Polish University College, London, presented plans for the redesign of central London in the light of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act.’
[9] This work should not be regarded simply as a way of earning money for Hamilton. As noted by David Mellor, ‘Hamilton can be initially imagined as an artist-technician, an artificer at the crossroads of commercial display design and traditional Renaissance perspective drawing skills.’ See David Mellor, ‘The Pleasures and Sorrows of Modernity: Vision, Space and the Social Body in Richard Hamilton’, in Hal Foster, Alex Bacon (eds.), Richard Hamilton (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2010), 27. The fact that he received a recommendation by Hugh Casson, the director of architecture for the festival, for the teaching position he would get in Newcastle in 1953 proves that his involvement in the architectural part of the Festival was not simply related to a role as a carpenter (see Singer, 311).
[10] William G. Holford, ‘Introduction’, in Town and Country Planning Textbook, (London: Architectural Press, 1950), V–VI.
[11] Live Architecture Exhibition, Festival of Britain records, National Archives, Kew. Contracts concerning Hamilton: Model (Contours) Cambridge. P.1. Planning. WORK 25/276, C 3/1366. 9 Model Proof Frames. Poplar. P.R.2472. WORK 25/282, C 3/2035. Two Model Houses. (Thermal Insulation). P2C/4b and c. WORK 25/273, C 3/1115. Model of Planning Exhibition. WORK 25/260, C 3/205. Three Models of Towns (Stevenage, East Kilbride, Welwyn Garden City and Hatfield). P1/D/ie. ig and 4m. WORK 25/273, C 3/1117. 2 Models “Coventry and Speke”. WORK 25/280, C 3/1754. Photographic records of the Festival of Britain (Live Architectural Exhibition included) can be found in WORK 25/208, WORK 25/209, WORK 25/210.[12] Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command. A Contribution to Anonymous History (London & New York: Oxford University Press), 1948.
[13] Powers, LIII-LXII.
[14] D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 1942.
[15] Quoted in Jolivette, 120.
[16] See Anne Massey, The Independent Group: Modernism and Mass Culture in Britain, 1945-59 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995), 140.
[17] Identified as such in Richard Morphet (ed.), Richard Hamilton, [exh. cat.] (London: Tate Gallery, 1970), 22.
[18] Walsh, 66.
[19] Leo Steinberg, ‘Other Criteria’, in Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 84.
[20] On the tabular quality of Hamilton’s paintings, see William R. Kaizen, ‘Richard Hamilton’s Tabular Image’, October 94 (2000), 113-28.
[21] See Tanis Hinchcliffe, ‘’The Synoptic View’: Aerial Photographs and Twentieth-Century Planning’, in Andrew Higgott and Timothy Wray (eds.), Camera Constructs: Photography, Architecture and the Modern City (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), 135–146.
[22] Richard Hamilton, Collected Words, 1953-1982 (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1982), 64.
[23] Siegfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: the Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1941), 352.
[24] Giedion (1941), 720.
[25] See Andrew Wilson, Richard Hamilton: Swingeing London 67 (f) (London and Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2011), 99: ‘As Alloway later explained: “It was the visual abundance of these books that was influential, illustrations that ranged freely across sources in art and science, mingling new experiments and antique survivals. I know what I liked about these books…was their acceptance of science and the city, not on a utopian basis, but in terms of fact condensed in vivid imagery.”’
[26] László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion, (Chicago: P. Theobald, 1947), 117.
[27] Hamilton, 13.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Hamilton, 14.
[30] See Reyner Banham, ‘Futurism’, Art, 3 March 1955, 6–7 and Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (London: Architectural Press, 1960), section 2 (‘Italy: Futurist Manifestos and Projects, 1909-1914’), 99-138.
[31] Hamilton, 13.
[32] Ibid.
[33] See Richard Kalina, ‘Imagining the Present: Context, Content, and the Role of the Critic’, in Lawrence Alloway, Imagining the Present: Context, Content, and the Role of the Critic; ed. by Richard Kalina (London: Routledge, 2006), 3.
[34] Greenberg wrote about Cézanne in the early 1950s, emphasizing the primacy of the picture surface and the grid-like construction of strokes in Cézanne’s work. See for example: Clement Greenberg, ‘Cézanne and the Unity of Modern Art’, first pub. in 1951, reprint in Clement Greenberg, The Collected Essays and Criticism: Vol. 3; Affirmations and Refusals, 1950-1956, ed. by John O’Brian (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 88, or Clement Greenberg, ‘Cézanne: Gateway to Contemporary Painting’, first pub. in 1952, reprint in Greenberg (1993), 117-118.
[35] Thomas B. Hess, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase (New York: Viking Press, 1951), 31.
[36] Namely the group defined by the book: Lawrence Alloway (ed.), Nine Abstract Artists: Their Work and Theory (London: Alec Tiranti, 1954). See also Alastair Grieve, Constructed Abstract Art in England After the Second World War: a Neglected Avant-Garde (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005).
[37] Erle Loran, Cezanne’s Composition: Analysis of His Form with Diagrams and Photographs of His Motifs (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 8.
[38] Hamilton, 12.
[39] Reyner Banham, ‘Vision in Motion’, Art, 5 January 1955, 3.
[40] Banham (1955b).
[41] Banham (1955b).
[42] John Bender, Michael Marrinan, The Culture of Diagram (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010), 7.
[43] David Joselit, ‘Dada’s Diagrams’, in Leah Dickerman, Matthew Witkovsky (eds.), The Dada Seminars, (Washington, D.C.: CASVA, National Gallery of Art, 2005), 221-239.
[44] See Bryony Bery, ‘Through the Large Glass: Richard Hamilton’s Reframing of Marcel Duchamp’, Tate Papers, no.26, Autumn 2016,, accessed 20 August 2019.
[45] Giovanni Casini, ‘Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Fine Art (1948–51) and His “Abstract” Paintings of the Early 1950s’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 157 (2015), n. 1350, 623-630.
[46] James J. Gibson, The Perception of the Visual World (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1950).
[47] Mellor, 21.
[48] James J. Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin), 1966.
[49] Hamilton, 16.
[50] Gibson, 122.
[51] See Ibid., for a speculation on the theoretical space perceived ‘if human beings had a visual field whose width included the entire horizon…the field during locomotion would appear to open up ahead and close behind in a rather astonishing manner.’
[52] Hamilton’s knowledge of Klee and his Pedagogical Sketchbook is demonstrated by the etching Self-Portrait (1951, Tate). It presents motifs like the pendulum, the arrow and the spiral analysed similarly in Klee’s book. The composition itself, being the parody of a portrait, reminds of Klee’s Portrait of an Equilibrist (1927, MoMA, New York), exhibited at the Tate in 1945-46, or Mask of Fear (1932, MoMA, New York).
[53] Paul Klee, Pedagogical Sketchbook (London: Faber & Faber, 1953), 38-39.
[54] See Annual Report, 1950-51, Slade School Archive, UCL Records Office, Annual Reports, 1948-49 session to 1954-1955 (ARC/2007/77). On Hamilton’s studentship at the Slade School, see Casini 2015, 623-630.
[55] David Sylvester, ‘Architecture in Modern Painting’, Architectural Review, vol. 109, no. 650, February 1951, 81.
[56] Sylvester 1951, 87.
[57] Sylvester 1951, 88.
[58] David Sylvester, ‘Klee – I’, first pub. as ‘Auguries of Experience’, Tiger’s Eye, no. 6, December 1948, now in David Sylvester, About Modern Art: Critical Essays, 1948-96 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1996), 35.

Share This

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Close