Stephen Taylor – European Picture Hanging 1660 to today

It was a crisp winter night, where snuggling up in the work-from-home clothes had more appeal than dressing up for a glam evening for a Waikato Decorative and Fine Arts Society (Waikato DFAS) lecture. However, Iggy and I were so pleased we took the plunge into Hamilton’s wintry darkness to hear Stephen Taylor talking on picture hanging.

Stephen Taylor is an artist, lecturer and interior designer with a list of credentials longer than Barbie’s legs. His lecture made what initially seemed like an unlikely topic for a great night out into a richly packed and engaging hour. We had not previously realised that picture hanging has its own history.

Stephen started by explaining quadrati riportati (don’t you love the rhythm of those words?), where artists produced cartoons (drawings) of works to go on ceilings and then painted the actual work into the ceiling architecture. Elaborate gold edgings, which were part of the actual ceiling, formed the frame.

Design and placement of art works became integral with the architecture of stately mansions.  Rooms were designed to be perfectly symmetrical with artworks painted directly onto the wall. Some looked like windows to the outdoors. The paintings were part of the architecture. Paintings of equal size, shape and style were commissioned to be placed above symmetrically positioned doors. The chimney piece, in the middle of the wall, was frequently a family portrait.

I was intrigued by Stephen’s comment – so obvious on reflection – that the colours of paintings had to cope with being seen by candlelight or the light of an oil lamp in pre-electric days. As daylight faded, mid-colours “dropped out” more quickly than light and dark colours. The most important features of a painting were often light in colour so that they stood out in the quiet light  – a factor which will now attract my notice now, when viewing older paintings.

Later, paintings were painted on canvas, framed, and hung on the walls, initially very high up and tilted so that the eye could take them in. Art works of the time showed people standing. As paintings began to show people seated, the position of paintings on the wall shifted to a lower eye line. Stephen showed more contemporary placements where art pieces began to sit alongside other items hung on the wall – art as object. Stephen (who is an artist, himself) favours slim, grey frames for his own works so that they will fit well with any décor. It is a far cry from having paintings as an intrinsic element of a house’s architecture.

For those who wish to explore the topic further, Stephen recommends the book by Peter Thornton, “Authentic Décor”. In the meantime, I am putting out the hint that a perfect gift for Kiwicommunicator would be a copy of Stephen’s own book “Oak” which features three years of paintings of one particular oak – at daytime, night time and across the seasons. (Thanks to Stephen’s website for the images. There’s a lovely image of Stephen and Kiwicommunicator chatting after our DFAS meeting but it’s stuck on Iggy’s phone and is defying every possible move to download it.)

Oak After Snow

Midsummer Night


2 thoughts on “Stephen Taylor – European Picture Hanging 1660 to today

  1. Ana says:

    Wow! I’ve never thought about picture hanging in that much detail before. How interesting. One of the things that bug me about our house is that the previous owners put big, ugly, permanent picture hooks in the walls at heights (generally too high) and distances (too far apart from one another) that I don’t like. One day we’ll have to go through and pull them out and patch up the holes!

  2. Yes – Stephen Taylor would probably recommend hanging art works closer to eye level when sitting rather than way up high. You need a visit from Iggy. He does a great job with tasks like that!

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