Last week, in the middle of Kentish Town, I could have sworn I was in in Egypt. Or Morocco. Or even Norfolk. Nevertheless, I was in the sun; albeit that reflected sun, which refracts like a kaleidoscope, emanating a patchwork of bold colour from the paintings of Birkin Haward. In the tiny Beardsmore Gallery, on what is, currently, a guaranteed rainy day, I gazed at these pieces as if seeing a glimpse of technicolor Oz from the grey of Kansas.
I feel lucky to be able to say I have worked with Birkin. Both artist and architect, he is outstandingly accomplished in each field. When I joined van Heyningen and Haward (the architectural practice Birkin founded in 1983 with wife Jo van Heyningen) in 2008, I was instantly aware of his artistic talents – his hand-drawn perspectives alone are legendary in the architecture world. However I was not privy to his personal artworks until summer 2010 when I assisted him in producing some prints for his exhibition at Salthouse Church in Norfolk. One look and I was hooked. I took the family up to see the exhibition, was warmly welcomed into the family home by Birkin and stunned by the atmospheric monochrome pieces hung in Salthouse church, most of which were markedly different to the current exhibition.
The contrast between the two styles of painting can in some part be attributed to his recent change of circumstance. In 2009 Birkin moved away from architecture to become a full-time artist; still keeping links with the architecture world by working as a consultant, but primarily focusing on developing his craft and producing exhibitions. This change has resulted in a subtle shift in style, infused with the ethos of Mondrian, Rothko and a pinch of Cezanne. These bold, dramatic statements move me in a different way to the Salthouse pieces.
The traditional Birkin style is of course always there as the framework; his striking gift is the ability to create a scene and evoke the accompanying emotion from mere suggestion. Line and tone are intimately explored to draw out their capacities and fulfill their ultimate potential. Birkin can see how these pieces, elements of a whole, can be pared down to the most dramatic to create almost just a clue, for us the viewer to decipher: the fence designating the line of the field, the gradual shift in tonal range of an approaching storm. He sees it inherently.
The evocative nature of his pieces was most evident in pieces such as storm at sea. You get the sense that, in the manner of Turner, he sat and created this picture right there, in front of that storm. As if he had been amongst that melee of the elements, had felt them overwhelm the landscape with their old magic and deep power.
In contrast, his newer works are less a record of a place and more an interpretation. A translation of scene through unique artistic vernacular and sense experience. Their joie de vivre bursts through the confines of the canvas and inhabits the room. Since moving away from the limitation and stress of the office, Birkin has been freer to travel. To expand his aesthetic language beyond the sometimes rough and raw Norfolk setting in which he grew up and to invoke the hue and light of foreign isles. The result is a juxtaposition of colour and abstraction of view through glorious and celebratory geometrical compositions. Even brooding Norfolk is awash with sunshine, reflected, as it is on the viewer, onto the formerly brittle scenery from climates afar.
His father (Birkin Haward Sr.) was also an architect and artist and it is clear that creativity is imbued in Birkin to his very core. His skill in deciphering and analysing spaces and forms runs through both his artistic and architectural work; by inserting and interpreting, he conveys something entirely his own. What is certain is that there is plenty still to come. Birkin has certainly not yet finished making his mark.