I wrote a while back (here) about an unnerving observation I had made at the RHA opening in its new space, back in November. This is very vain, but I’m going to quote myself: “I was a bit shocked (as a painter) to see how photography stood out. Pack lots of paintings together (as they do in the current show), and you get a bit blinded by all the gesture and brushstroke. In contrast, the photographs, also packed together, had a stillness about them; they also managed to be more self-contained."

Jump forward to the National Gallery last night, and simultaneously leap back into the eighteenth century. A fabulous show opened last night of the work of Thomas Roberts, whose speciality was landscape painting, with a roughly Irish theme. He was extraordinarily good at it, and would surely be better known had he not died of TB in his late twenties.

Thomas Roberts – oil painting, current on show at the National Gallery, Dublin; image held here

Naturally enough, each painting was hung with plenty of space, in a gilded frame. But had they been hung close together, each (I believe) would still have commanded its own space; the reason, it seems to me, is that this pre-modernist painter had to create a compelling sense of depth; as a result, we travel into the canvas and not just across it (and off into the next work)

I say ‘compelling’ rather than ‘convincing’, because I suspect it’s not about photographic realism, not even nearly. I suspect it is a lot more about making the brain of the viewer want to construct a mental image that works in depth; this could be done with a few simple lines. The Modernist approach has been to thwart the internal generation of the third dimension, by using marks that contradict that tendency.

And so, I would guess, the result it bound to get messy when you stick such paintings close together. (If anybody would like to point me in the direction of theory on this matter, I’ll add some references…)