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Holding the line

Deanna Petherbridge draws in ink and never from photographs. In her late 70s, she is fierce in defence of the pen. As for CAD – ‘it controls you’

Plan and Projection, 2014, Deanna Petherbridge.
Plan and Projection, 2014, Deanna Petherbridge.

For nearly half a century, artist Deanna Petherbridge has been creating meticulous monochrome drawings inspired by everything from complex geometric patterns to Manchester’s industrial heritage and vernacular architecture from around the world.

Forty of these drawings are on display in a new exhibition at The Whitworth gallery in Manchester, which coincides with the publication of a monograph on her work. 

Buildings, cities and landscape are recurring themes, but Petherbridge does not, she says, draw architecture. Instead, she describes her work as conveying ‘a situation of architecture and landscape’ in which she is increasingly interested in expressing the experiential qualities of architectural spaces.

Petherbridge is an impressive figure with a long and varied career. From 1995-2001 she was Professor of Drawing at the Royal College of Art, where she set up the Centre for Drawing Research. Now in her late 70s, she has, in addition to her work as an artist and academic, designed costumes and sets for ballets, curated exhibitions, and written extensively – books include her acclaimed 2010 publication The Primacy of Drawing: Histories and Theories of Practice – all the while travelling widely around the world and undertaking numerous residencies along the way. When I met her at her north London studio, she was about to head off to India on another drawing mission, travelling light but armed with her inks, pens and rolls of paper.

Her passion for drawing is tangible. She never draws from photographs  (‘that would be death’) or pre-plans her often large-scale works, which can take months, even years to complete. Instead, the composition emerges as she draws using just pen, ink, wash and a ‘hard edge’, working to a soundtrack of baroque and classical music.

Rhetoric of War, 2013, Deanna Petherbridge.
Rhetoric of War, 2013, Deanna Petherbridge.

A Fellow of the RIBA, she is drawn to buildings as inspiration because of their formality, their potential for repetition and subtleties of change, and their ability to function as analogies and metaphors. While she admires the stripped back modernism of the work of contemporary architects such as David Chipperfield, and the house designs of David Adjaye, she has long been fascinated by vernacular architecture, having travelled extensively in Europe, India, the Middle East and Far East. Indian temples in particular have been recurring subjects of her drawings.

Her focus has shifted over the years. Her work of the 1970s was often concerned with geometries, taking inspiration from Islamic designs in particular to create mind-bogglingly complex patterns. These showcase her virtuoso ability to make space appear to pop out three-dimensionally from the flatness of the paper. Her extraordinary cityscapes of that era seem to evoke the relentlessness of urbanisation, formed from assemblages of building components, sometimes from all manner of perspectives.

Petherbridge has also long been interested in how buildings convey a sense of place, and the Whitworth exhibition includes work from the Manchester Suite, a collection of drawings made during her six-month residency at Manchester Art Gallery in 1982, a time when regeneration was threatening some of the city’s Victorian architectural heritage.

With their frequently impossible multiple perspectives, her extraordinary drawings do not seek to faithfully reproduce a particular architecture. Her work increasingly goes beyond the visual potential of building form to consider how people inhabit buildings.

‘I’ve moved away from abstracted views to working with an experiential architecture to encourage people to feel they’ve walked into the spaces.’

The drawings are often, she says, about ambiguity. Sometimes they can be read as an analogy of social conditions, with clashing new and old architectures suggesting, for example, the uneasy relationship between traditional and more modern ways of life, or the imposition of colonialism. Turning Tables (1989) uses spatial imagery to suggest the control and exploitation that lies behind the practices of some big businesses. 

  • Backcloth for Bloodlines ballet, 1990, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Backcloth for Bloodlines ballet, 1990, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Star Projection, 1977, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Star Projection, 1977, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Pink Warehouse from the Manchester Suite, 1982, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Pink Warehouse from the Manchester Suite, 1982, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Cellar & Attic, 1989, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Cellar & Attic, 1989, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Fragility of the Aegean, 1981, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Fragility of the Aegean, 1981, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Snapshots of Family Life, 1988, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Snapshots of Family Life, 1988, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • The Destruction of the City of Homs triptych, 2016, Deanna Petherbridge.
    The Destruction of the City of Homs triptych, 2016, Deanna Petherbridge.
  • Taming the Bay (Melbourne), 2003, Deanna Petherbridge.
    Taming the Bay (Melbourne), 2003, Deanna Petherbridge.

Warfare and conflict has been a recurrent theme throughout her career, notably in The Iron Siege of Pavia (1973-5) and The Concrete Armada (1982). She recently completed a major new work, the Destruction of Homs (2016), a large-scale piece on the impact of war in Syria from a drone’s eye view. In this triptych of a shattered urban landscape, the multiple perspectives are used to convey the dislocation and carnage of the conflict, the expanses of white untouched paper contrasting sharply with the surrounding detail of collapsed buildings and suggestive of the total destruction wreaked by the bombardments.

Petherbridge relishes the freedom of her work. ‘Unlike an architect, who has a brief, I have a marvellous freedom, inventing, following and destroying my own briefs,’ she says. ‘It’s very labour intensive. And very pleasurable.’

 She does, however, worry about the loss of value placed on drawing as designers increasingly rely on computer-aided design, and in particular the loss of the immediacy and sense of scale that drawing on paper encourages.

‘You’re always at second or third hand – the [computer drawing] system has been set up by someone else. You think you’re controlling it, but it’s controlling you.’

Her use of ink, which can’t be erased, makes the act of drawing extremely tense and exciting, she says, adding that the challenges of such a technique and even the drawer’s own ‘ineptitudes’ can be very helpful in encouraging the creative process.

While the book is something of a career retrospective, her work is very much continuing.

‘I feel so happy when I’m drawing,’ she says.


Deanna Petherbridge, until June 4, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.

The new monograph, Deanna Petherbridge: Drawing and Dialogue, is published by Circa Press.