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Thursday 29 October 2020

Octagon 300 – Baroque Art and Illusion

Our new main gallery exhibition Octagon 300 is influenced by Baroque art. The show, created by Jonathan Roson along with art group Alice in Hackneyland, is a celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Octagon Room. Let’s find out a bit more about the context of the show. The show is made up of three sections: The Fluorescent Banquet, a largescale sculptural assemblage that plays homage to the people and stories of Orleans House Gallery, using the banquet held in the Octagon Room by Queen Caroline in 1729 as a starting point, Play with Baroque, which is an Ames room inspired by the art of the period, and a curated selection from the Borough Art Collection, celebrating the Octagon Room and the people that have lived at Orleans House.

The Octagon Room was built in 1720 as a pavilion separate to the main Palladian style mansion completed in 1710. Secretary Johnson, the owner of Orleans House at the time, became close to the new Hanoverian dynasty and hoped to appeal to their architectural tastes by constructing a distinctly Baroque extension. He had retired from politics and devoted his life in Twickenham to gardening and entertainment by this time. According to one of his neighbours, “Secretary Johnston has a vast deal of company dayly, hear is hardly a day that he has not a coach and six horsis at his doar, and some times twoe or three more. Sure he must have a vast esteat to entertain soe many…” In sharp contrast to the sober and controlled appearances of the main house, the Octagon Room is a Baroque architectural structure, exuberant and joyful, fit for wining and dining royalty. He commissioned the construction to a Scotsman James Gibbs (1682 – 1754), one of the few architects in Britain who travelled to Rome and received first hand instruction from a prominent Baroque master, Carlo Fontanta (1638 -1714), himself a student of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680). The Octagon Room remains one of the most brilliant examples of Gibbs’s more eclectic Italian Baroque style buildings in Britain and a unique hidden gem of London.

The Octagon Room at Orleans House Twickenham 2.10.1965 from the Borough Art Collection

The Baroque art movement originated in Italy as a counter-response to the religious Reformation movements of the 16th century. Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, Baroque expanded past the religious divisions of the time and reached Protestant countries as far North as Britain. Baroque’s drama and passion captivated the hearts and souls, but its more playful side, the dynamism and the exuberance, questioned ideas, boundaries and perception of reality.

The use of perspective, quadratura, and stucco in architecture and the adaptation of trompe l’oeil techniques for painting represent some of the most vivid and captivating effects of Baroque art. On a grander scale these illusionary techniques allowed artists to create a sense of altered reality, a reality that was greater than life itself. Something that was far away appeared to be near, flat surfaces displayed three-dimensional objects, the church roofs bounded by the ceilings appeared as infinite as the heavenly skies above. In smaller and more intimate works, trompe l’oeil illusions emitted a sense of wonder, at times playfully deceiving and playing pranks on its viewers.

The credits are: Edward Collier, A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implemetns on a Wooden Board, c. 1699, ©Tate, Photo ©Tate, image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (unported), Tate website:

Trompe l’oeil techniques were ubiquitous in 17th and 18th century British art, with fine examples including letter rack paintings, illusion paintings, still life paintings, Dutch peepshow illusion perspective boxes, and even life-size cut-outs or chantournés that cunning hosts carefully positioned to deceive their unsuspecting visitors.

Play with Baroque, one of the works on display, is an immersive installation that was inspired by the grandeur and exuberance of the Octagon Room and the Baroque art techniques of quadrature and trompe l’oeil Both quadratura and trompe l’oeil aim to achieve gain of perspective to show three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional surfaces. Trompe l’oeil means “deceive the eye” in French and as a visual arts technique it was intended to achieve exactly that.  Play with Baroque is a three-dimensional structure called an Ames room that also tricks the eyes of its viewers, but unlike the Baroque art techniques it achieves the illusionary effects through the loss of perspective. Alice in Hackneyland designed Play with Baroque with distinct features of the Octagon Room to commemorate the building and the period it was created in.

Diagram of how to use the Ames room
Image of the Ames room in use during construction

Octagon 300 is on until 21 March 2021. For details on visiting Orleans House Gallery, look here.