- Architects’ Sketchbooks in the Danish Art Library
Among the many different forms of documentation of architects’ work which the Danish Art Library collects, preserves and makes available to the public is a very large collection of folders, notebooks in pocket-book format which all come under the generic term “sketchbooks.”
These principally contain drawings and water-colours accompanied by fairly brief texts and give an impression of journeys both in Denmark and abroad in the 19th and 20th centuries. These were undertaken, for instance, by young architects who supplemented their training at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts with journeys for the purposes of study and edification in Europe during which they visited cities, castles, churches and monasteries, which were regarded – and still are – as important in the history of architecture and art. Such journeys might also have been travels around the Danish provinces to study and survey building works from more ancient history as a part of the architectural training at the Academy, or with a view to acquiring knowledge about Danish national customs and traditions in building.
Where the word “sketch” tends to be associated with the initial study, a primary draft, when used in connection with the sketchbooks its meaning is akin to the literary use of the word, i.e. that which describes and denotes an experience, one, or a series of events.
The sketchbooks of the young architects who were setting out on their lives’ first – and possibly only – journey abroad in the early 19th century are filled with diligence, and yet also with moderation, and with the well-developed draughtsman’s skills which were a product of the training at the Academy, where practice at drawing occupied much of the curriculum. Even after the invention of photography and its spread as a tool for artists, great emphasis was placed on drawing in Academy training, so that, at the same time, the ability to observe and represent accurately and precisely what was seen, was developed and sharpened. And the young architects who set out to learn and be inspired made thorough studies and reproduced, down to the most minute details, ornamentation and paintwork, bonds, floor plans, facades etc. Once in a while they also drew and painted general travel impressions: street life, landscapes, flora and fauna, and thus one gains a sense of the areas in which they travelled and stayed. A number of the older sketchbooks are suffused with what, for the time, was an astonishing economizing with the paper, but the small books had to be sufficient for long periods of time, perhaps one had to last the entire journey. This was where the Academy’s training in draughtsmanship really served the travellers well, enabling them to represent even large-scale complicated structures, patterns and ornament clearly in very limited space, side by side with other motifs. It is clearly apparent that they wanted to have everything down, both all the material that was to be used in their later work as architects as well as the pleasant memories of their journeys. Memories of exotic destinations in other countries or even areas of Denmark which were difficult to reach.
In most sketchbooks there is a preponderance of drawings related to the profession but there are also examples with a more personal content. This is the case with the sketchbooks given to the library by Kai Gottlob which cover the years 1906-1910, while he was attending the Technical School and the School of Architecture at the Academy. There are portraits of friends, motifs from town and country, spontaneous representations of what was seen and experienced.
Anyone examining the architects’ sketchbooks today will feel pleasure at how well they could draw and handle water-colours, but readers are also granted an insight into how and where people travelled in given periods: what sights were prioritised, how well preserved the monuments were before the pollution caused by industry and motor traffic began to cause serious damage. And they represent a source for the understanding of the individual architect.
As a public institution the Danish Art Library has a duty to present its collections to the public, while at the same time it has a responsibility to preserve these for posterity, and with the dual purpose of presenting and preserving the interesting, physically fragile sketchbooks the library has begun their digitalisation, so that they will be accessible as one of the library’s many online resources