My zest for the seemingly more adventurous forms of travel has been in decline for decades now. When I visited India in my early twenties, it took me about three months to get over the culture shock; nowadays it takes me about three months to acclimatise to a weekend in Wiltshire, a development that makes the country-house party – so beloved of the English upper-middle and upper classes – pretty much anathema to me.
But if I can’t be arsed to visit that humungous euphemism “the developing world” (developing into what exactly? A banana? A moth?), at least I know some people who can. Jon Wealleans, an architect of my acquaintance, has made a couple of pilgrimages to the ancient city of Hampi in the central Indian province of Karnataka. Jon, as well as drawing buildings that have yet to be constructed, takes a fierce delight in producing exactingly realistic renditions of Hampi in oils. Over liver and bacon in The Stockpot restaurant in London, Jon waxed lyrical about the unique character of Hampi, a city at its zenith during the Golden Age of India, when Hindus and Muslims cohabited amid opulent, many-pillared temples.
I had an idea: since Jon’s paintings were, he assured me, slavishly like the real thing, I could walk from my house in Stockwell to his house hard by Borough Market, and thus encounter the Subcontinent without leaving my own immediate purlieus. I set off in bright autumnal sunlight that was soon palled by the mighty sooty bulk of St John the Divine, Kennington. This is the sort of Victorian neogothic church that should have been dropped – in a friendly fashion – on John Betjeman. John Ruskin Street, which is flanked on both sides by vast estates of high rises, led me to the Walworth Road. In Spring Street market, a long nave of knickers, mobile-phone covers and pigs’ trotters, I had a sharp exchange with a stallholder.
“I want a big black cap,” I said.
“A big black cap just like that?” the man snapped back. “I’ve only small blue caps.”
“No good,” I stressed. “But I’ll be back.”
Jon and his partner Natalie live in a c1650 house full of things that might well be on sale in the so-called Thieves Market across the road. The apartments are roomy and wood-panelled; Jon works in a studio on the first floor. The Hampi paintings were all I could’ve hoped for, like oblongs of half a world away, radiating painful lemon dawn, reeking of untreated sewage, cardamon and chai. The temples had the magisterial appearance of ruins that have yet to be scaled by a recreational multitude, and indeed, as Jon described the 22-hour cab ride from Goa, followed by the coracle ride across the river required to reach them, I felt wholly vindicated by my desire to merely stroll across town in order to visit them.
Jon himself is no stranger to the banjaxed world view. He’s currently working on the building that will enclose “Dickens’ World” at Chatham, a structure he cheerfully describes as “a big black cube”, broken up only by those points where “the rides” emerge. He was also responsible for Madame Tussaud’s in Las Vegas, a tricky commission which saw Jon implanting huge airconditioning units into the portico to prevent the waxwork of Don King – which played the role of greeter – from melting away. He has long eschewed the practicalities of his profession – site visits, meetings, etc – in favour of just drawing; so that quite often he rounds an unfamiliar corner in a familiar city only to find himself face-to-face with a building he himself designed, but which he’s never seen in the flesh.
But the Hampi paintings are the reverse of this. Like all realist painters, Jon attempts to make things look like they ought to do in photographs, but actually can’t. In place of the unified focal length of the photographic image,
Jon substitutes the saccades of the human eye as it surveys a prospect, zooming in and out, panning continually. Of course, this is quite like an analog of memory itself, as it ranges over space and time,
and the Hampi paintings, while at first glance fairly straightforward, on closer inspection suck you into their golden glow of
Still, unfortunately for Jon – who takes aeons to paint them – his dealer, Francis Kyle, has been less than supportive. “I’ve shown these paintings to Indians who’ve been there,” he told the artist, “and even they didn’t like them.” So now, in a drive to actually make a little money, Jon has turned his attention to meticulously rendering little corners of overcrowded English gardens. I’m sure they’ll be a great hit with Francis Kyle’s clientele, but personally I shan’t be going to the private view; unless, that is, it’s held in Hampi.