Simon Cousins speaks to architect and artist James St Clair Wade of The Shrewsbury Streetscape Project ahead of a new solo exhibition at Halls Fine Art (December 13 - January 19) which celebrates five years of this remarkable undertaking.
James greets me warmly one breezy Monday afternoon and shows me into the dining room which doubles up as an office in his Belle Vue house. It is a calm, meditative space. He is currently working on a sketch of St Alkmund’s Place, the latest drawing for his ‘Shrewsbury Streetscape Project’, his 'catalogue' of the streets of our town - a 'hobby gone mad', as James puts it. He has now completed about two thirds of the Shrewsbury streets within the river loop in a series of meticulous sketches, drawn to scale, in which real life is miniaturised. Fish Street is next.
“Just like their clothes, you can tell a lot about how people lived by their buildings,” he says.
A section of The High Street in Shrewsbury - part of James' magnificent Shrewsbury Streetscape Project
Over a cup of coffee, James tells me about his lifelong fascination for art: "Apparently, as a young boy in London, I was drawing over walls, just drawing the whole time. I do have a few early drawings that my grandparents have kept: cards, cartoons and so on. My brother loved art as well, so we would draw our own cartoons and make home-made cards for each other. They tended to be based on cartoonists we loved, like Thelwell. It became a family tradition.”
After three years at Prestfelde, James went on to Shrewsbury School, where he enjoyed being part of a fantastic art department under the tutelage of John Alford.
"He was a very fine local artist, who obviously taught but also painted in his own time, and a great encourager. I spent a lot of time there. With an evening Life Drawing class each week, it was almost like being at Art School.”
One of James' early sketchbooks during his years at Shrewsbury School: shown at his recent retrospective at the school
On coming to the end of his time at the school, however, James had to make a choice: "Art was what I really loved - I’d always rather draw than write - but everyone was saying, ‘You need to go to University not Art School, so, in the end Architecture, for me, was a compromise.”
“I started studying Architecture at Cambridge in 1981 and, after my degree, I worked for local Shrewsbury architectural practice Arrol and Snell for a year.
The practice got launched by the conversion of the old RSI to The Parade - one of their first ‘Landmark Projects’. I was in at the tail-end of that one. I also produced the concept designs for Carline Fields that year. The arches are inspired by the stable block at Attingham Park.” This elegant sheltered housing development on the banks of the Severn was later selected for inclusion in the Prince of Wales's A Vision of Britain (1989).
The following year, he went to Harvard as part of a regular yearly exchange between the American university and Cambridge. As part of a Print Making course, James studied Etching. He produced some startling work through this “fascinating process”, including one Dali-esque work entitled ‘Can these bones live?’, based on the vision of the prophet Ezekiel. It was at Harvard that he met David Hockney.
“One day our tutors came in with him. He sat down on a stool and started to talk to us in his broad Yorkshire accent about his approach to things. I knew of his swimming pool paintings and some of his 60’s portraits and so I didn’t expect him to look like he did. He’d been given a pre-prepared zinc plate with resin on it and he was just scribbling on it and chatting as he went along. Then, when he’d finished talking, they dipped the plate in acid and printed it. It turned out that he’d been scribbling a portrait of us, his audience, and I was included. I was telling my son about this one day and he immediately googled it and found it, for sale somewhere. It’s called ‘Harvard Etching’. I’m the guy with round glasses and straggly beard!”
James St Clair Wade at his retrospective exhibition 'An Architect's Eye' earlier this year at Shrewsbury School
After Harvard came a further year at Cambridge, followed by a second year out, this time with very well-respected Nicholas Hare architects in London, who kept him on for another eight years. His return to Arrol and Snell thereafter lasted twenty. James talks me through some of the projects he was involved in during the latter: extensive repairs to St Alkmund’s, saving it from closure; a new classically designed house in North Shropshire, mentioned in the recent Pevsner Architectural Guide; Blackfriars, a housing scheme consisting of forty-five dwellings, just off Water Lane.
“What do you consider to be your greatest achievements?” I ask James.
After serious thought, he chooses two. The first is the conservation work carried out at the Old Market Hall: shoring up the roof, crawling under floorboards to make dozens of survey drawings, trying to figure out how the building originally worked. The second is the Trinity Centre in Meole Brace, with its spectacular vaulted roof, cloister and its gift of light and space.
All this time, James never forgot his passion for art. At a recent retrospective exhibition at Shrewsbury School called ‘An Architect’s Eye’, James displayed oil paintings of Shrewsbury, including one of The Square, with an imaginary market scene and Clive of India “off to Starbucks” in the corner!
James also enjoys painting - here a tongue-in-cheek view of The Square
There were also exquisite vignettes drawn from the window at Shrewsbury School’s Moser Library, life drawings and some moody etchings from his time at Harvard.
James’s wife Katriona returns and offers me tea and some of James’s delicious home-baked bread before showing me his hilarious illustrations for Charles Foster’s ‘The Misadventures of Mr Badshot’ and his maps for Kate Innes’s ‘The Errant Hours’. The breadth of his artistic ability is truly remarkable.
“With Architecture,” he says, “there are hundreds of people involved in a project and drawing is a means to an end. You can do beautiful drawings, but they’re a by-product. The end result should be the building. But with drawing or painting, it is an object in itself and when you’ve finished it, it’s done. There’s something very satisfying about the simplicity of just sitting down and drawing something on your own.”
As the ‘Shrewsbury Streetscape Project’ is very much an architectural undertaking, but also draws on James’s artistic flair, perhaps this is the perfect combination for this most modest and talented of craftsmen. We look forward to the next steps in his huge endeavour.
The Shrewsbury Streetscape Project exhibition will be open from 10am to 4pm at Halls Fine Art's Darwin Gallery in Battlefield on weekdays and offers an exclusive opportunity to view a curated selection of James' remarkable work, as well as paintings of the local area.
To date, Wyle Cop, High Street, Mardol, Quarry Place, St John's Hill, Shoplatch, Pride Hill, Castle Street, Castle Foregate, St. Mary's Place, St. Mary's Street, Windsor Place, Dogpole, the south side of Town Walls, Milk Street, and Belmont have been completed.