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September 1, 2015
Gasometers, also called gas holders, were large tanks for storing coal gas and maintaining pressure in distribution lines. In Great Britain, gas holders were common features of the industrial landscape before natural gas became the primary source of fuel for powering streetlights and heating homes. They were often constructed at the sites of gasworks, which manufactured coal gas by carbonizing coal. Although many gas holders are still standing, most are no longer in use.
Some gas holders were enclosed in steel cages called guide frames, as seen in Gasometers, a monotype print by the British architect and printmaker Cyril E. Power (1872-1951). In this image, the gas holder is the red cylinder in the lower right corner. Gas holders were designed so that the upper part of the tank nested in the lower part and expanded vertically to accommodate increases in pressure. The height of the guide frames in this picture indicates the maximum height of expansion. Power, whose first career was architecture, composed many images of mechanical structures such as escalators, metal staircases, and the tubular passages of London’s underground transportation system. The energy and speed of mid-20th-century urban environments appealed to him, as did linear forms that took up space, such as cylinders and spirals. In this respect his work is reminiscent of an early 20th-century British group of artists called the Vorticists (The Art of JAMA, April 9, 2014).
Power was born in the Chelsea district of London in 1872. His father, also an architect, encouraged him to draw, and Power was completing sketchbooks by the age of 14. As a young man, he trained in his father’s office and then took a position at the British Ministry of Works, where he assisted with the design and construction of government buildings. In 1908 Power became a lecturer on architectural design and history at the School of Architecture at University College, London. In one of his teaching notebooks he described a technique of looking at an urban landscape by half closing his eyes to limit visual clutter and allowing important structures to take precedence. He gave an example of visualizing foreground features as silhouettes, and more than 20 years later he printed Gasometers, a view of darkened structures against a bright sky.
During the First World War, Power served in the Royal Flying Corps, managing repair workshops at an aerodrome on the coast of Kent. After the war he resumed his architectural practice. In the early 1920s Power painted watercolor landscapes and made his first prints. In 1924 he coauthored “Aim of the Art of Today,” a statement of his goals in the production of art. He suggested that the tone of modern art should suit the industrial landscape, which he considered to be forceful, majestic, and often ugly. In addition, he said, the design of a work of art should be unified and should pulse with rhythm. Power projected force, rhythm, and a unified purpose in a linocut titled The Eight (circa 1930), an image of oarsmen pulling together to propel their craft (The Art of JAMA, June 12, 2013).
In 1925 Power enrolled at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in London. A year later he was teaching courses on the form and structure of buildings, historical ornament, and the symbolism of architectural styles at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art. From a colleague at the Grosvenor School, Power learned to make prints by the technique of linocutting; many of his best pictures were made with this technique, including The Tube Station (circa 1932) and The Sunshine Roof (circa 1934); both are images of tiny renderings of people in fast-moving compartments. Power also produced monotypes, such as Gasometers, which were made by painting an image on a flat surface and then pressing a sheet of paper against the painted surface to transfer the image. After printing Gasometers, Power may have added the sooty swirls in the sky with a paintbrush.
In the 20th century many artists embraced aesthetics of visual brutality or ugliness in a time of war and rapid industrialization. The American artist Salvatore Scarpitta (The Art of JAMA, October 16, 2013) cut and bandaged his canvases, and the Norwegian American artist Jonas Lie (The Art of JAMA, September 17, 2014) painted monumentally dreary subjects, such as a toxic mine pit in Bingham Canyon, Utah. In this context, Power’s choice of gas holders as a subject for fine art does not seem out of place. In recent years, gas holders have come to be appreciated as landscape artifacts with architectural possibilities. In Vienna, Austria, some gasworks have been repurposed as living spaces and public buildings, and in Britain, gas holders have been preserved as local landmarks. Near the Oval Cricket Ground in the city of London, a complex of gas holders has been converted to an art gallery. The best purpose of a building often depends on its setting. When gas holders fell into disuse, they became relics, and when all that remains of a structure is its bones, it is easier to imagine the skeleton being put to better use. The difference between a carcass and a museum piece may be only the passage of time.