Waterperry House Project 1999 – 2001
2. Tradition and History of Advaita Vedanta.
3. Vedanta, the Vedas and the Upanishads
4. Shankara and the Shankaracharya lineage.
6. Waterperry House and Gardens.
7. Initial concept.
8. Guiding Verse
9. Architecture. Opportunities and limitations.
10. How the Upanishad verse relates to the architecture.
11. Measure harmony and proportion.
12. The paintings and thier concept.
14. Fresco painting and its history
15. Design principles.
16. The technique of fresco.
For the past two years, a small team of artists, architects and sculptures have been involved in working on a series of fresco paintings and sculptures to decorate the newly designed and built halls of Waterperry house. Owned by the School of Economic Science, an organisation for the study of spirituality, particularly the Indian philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, the project is to be an expression of some of these concepts. The house is used for spiritual retreats and meditation, and thus the aim of the project is to create something that reflects and enhances this use.
The School of Economic Science began in 1937 as a group set up to study economics, this in time developed into a study of spirituality, and in 1964 a visit to India and meeting with one of the leading exponents of the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. Since then this philosophy has been the mainspring of the school, however it has been augmented by the study of other philosophies and religions, aswell as the study of its relationship and application to the arts and sciences. The project at Waterperry brings together much of this work and study.
Tradition and history of Advaita Vedanta
The core idea of the Advaita philosophy is that in the ultimate analysis there is no difference between human consciousness, the universe and God, and that practical realisation of this unity is possible.
Advaita, literally meaning not two or non-duality, expresses the philosophy that there is no duality, no division, in reality between anything in life. The universe in Advaita Vedanta is said to be a manifestation of the one undifferentiated reality, expressed in the Sanskrit as Brahman.
In the philosophy of Advaita the apparent difference between you and me is explained as a projection of the mind, like a dream, thus in the myths of Advaita Vedanta, life is expressed as the dream or play of Brahman. Meditation is seen as a key tool for the practical realisation of this
Vedanta literally means the "end of the Veda", however it is normally understood as the term applied to the Upanishads and other systems of thought based upon them, and specifically the doctrine elaborated in the Brahmasutras of Badarayana. This system has been reinterpreted and altered by later philosophers such as Shankara, Ramanju, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabha. The central theme is that found in the Upanishads of the relation between the universal ground of existence and the individual. Shankara supposed God and the individual identical, Madhva that they were different, Ramanju that they were different yet identical.
Veda in Sanskrit means law, however conventionally it is seen as the ancient sacred literature of India, recorded largely prior to 100BC. The earliest account of the Vedas mention four sections, the Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Artharva and Yajur-Veda. The Vedas contain poetical hymns in praise of natural forces usually symbolised as gods responsible for the creation, sustenance and transformation of the universe. These where later extended and supplemented by various treatise on religious rituals, grammar, astronomy, medicine, and philosophical treatises such as the Upanishads. The Vedas are seen as the
The Upanishads are a collection of over 100 philosophical treatises of ancient India from which Advaita takes many of its concepts. Thirteen of the oldest of the treatises predate the beginning of Greek philosophy. They are remarkable for their investigation into the nature of man’s soul, God, death, immortality, and other metaphysical and ethical questions. The Upanishads explore the belief in Brahman, as the one great reality, the ground of all existence, and the liberation of the soul from suffering through union of the individual with Brahman, aswell as the ideas of reincarnation and karma.
"That in whom reside all beings and who resides in all beings,
who is the giver of grace to all, the Supreme Soul of the universe, the limitless being - I am that." Amritbindu Upanishad
Shankara has been the most prominent reviver of the Advaita philosophy and is considered by some the greatest philosopher of India. Born during the 9th century A.D, he wrote commentaries on the Prasthanatrayee, the Brahma Sutra, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, which are all still heavily used today. With four disciples Shankara travelled all over India to re-establish the philosophy of non-duality/Advaita. Although he died at the age of thirty two, he established four seats of learning each guided by one of the original four disciples: Jyotishpeetha in the North, Shringeri in the South, Govardhanapeeth in the East, and Sharadapeetha in the West. Since then the Advaita philosophy has been carried on through these centres, and the leading teachers of these centres are known as a Shankaracharya. (Charya meaning teacher in Sanskrit.)
"That which permeates all, which nothing transcends and which, like the universal space around us, fills everything completely from within and without, that Supreme non-dual Brahman - that thou art." Shankara
The position of Shankaracharya is passed on continually at each monastery, similar to the Pope. The Shankacharya of each centre has a number of duties, some of these are as such. To inspire and facilitate the study and exposition of the Advaita philosophy. To care for the fraternity of monks in India, and promote the construction of temples and monasteries. To promote the study of Sanskrit, (the oldest Indian language), and look after the welfare of the Sanskrit scholars. And to care for the poor and perform sacrifices for ecological harmony. It is a position which in many ways could be considered similar to the popes, and from which many people from all walks of life seek counsel and guidance.
The initial founder of the school of Economic Science Mr. Leon MacLaren first met with the then Shankaracharya of the North, Shantananda Saraswati, in 1964 and under his direction developed the school in London. Since then there has been a regular dialogue between the school and Shantananda Saraswati.
These conversations have become an essential part of the study of the School and it became obvious that some of the subject matter that conveyed the essence of this philosophy, should be the basis of the works for the hall. The Advaita Vedanta philosophy is a teaching that is traditionally conveyed orally from teacher to student, containing many stories, analogies, examples, principles, etc. It is not possible to show everything, but a selection has been made for the Waterperry project that would illustrate the main tenets of this philosophy.
Waterperry House and Gardens.
The site of the project, Waterperry House, is located an hour northwest from London near the city of Oxford. The house is used by the school of economic science for the running of residential weeks and weekends where people can study and meditate. Aswell as being used for spiritual retreats, once a year it is the site of Art in Action, an arts festival started in 1976. Organised by the school not only to contribute to the arts but to enhance Waterperry’s sense of place it involves a wide range of artists, craftsmen and performers from across the globe.
Another aspect of the Waterperry Estate is the heritage gardens and the horticultural centre that runs a wide variety of courses. Started over 60 years ago before the school purchased the estate, it has continued developing and together with Art in Action it has made Waterperry a place of interest to the general pubic. It is intended that the fresco project when complete will add to the attraction and interest of the place, thus it is to be open to the public throughout the year.
On the site of Waterperry there have been buildings since medieval times, what is now left above the ground is part of the Jacobean house and the Queen Anne house. It is clear that when the Queen Anne house was built in the1730’s, the Jacobean house was cut in half and the Queen Anne part added on the front. When the School of Economic Science purchased the property in 1971, the connection between the Jacobean house and the Queen Anne house was a series of complex rooms and passages.
It was decided that this arrangement was unsatisfactory and that there was a need to link the two houses in a more straightforward way. From this arose the concept of a carefully and harmoniously arranged hall, which would connect the two buildings and itself produce a space that was light, spacious, harmonious and simple.
In 1999 an architectural design had been approved and the major reconstruction was completed by December 1999, with the remaining spiral stairs to go in during November 2000 to January 2001. Apart from this architectural aspect, it was also decided that the hall would not only be beautiful architecturally, but also artistically. The idea was that a team of artists and sculptors would design works of art that would make a unique series of paintings and sculptures depicting some of the key ideas studied by the School. This work started in May 0f 2000 and is expected to be complete by the end of 2001/ early 2002. When complete the new hall will be open to the public.
To draw all three aspects of the project together, architecture, painting and sculpture, a verse was chosen to be expressed throughout the whole scheme. A grand theme around which the smaller designs would play. In the architecture there is direct links between the ideas of the verse and its expression in the architecture. With the painting and sculpture other ideas have been chosen to be expressed directly. Hopefully the sense of the verse, (that everything is God/Brahman), will pervade the space.
"This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew only itself as, ‘l am Brahman.’ Therefore it became All."
The verse chosen from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is said to be one of the four great statements of Advaita Vedanta, conveying much of the essence of Advaita. A simple interpretation of it is as follows.
‘This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning’
"This self", the individual experience of consciousness, is the substratum of life/God/Brahman. The fact that the verse is in the past tense is not to do with time, as in Advaita, Brahman is considered to be always present in everything. Thus it refers to the causal nature of Brahman, Brahman as the beginning of every form.
‘It knew only itself as, ‘I am Brahman’
When the individual realises its unity with Brahman there logically can be nothing else for it to know. Thus it can only know itself, itself in all things.
‘Therefore it became all’
Being relieved of the ignorance of being a separate entity, through the realisation ‘I am Brahman’, there is immediate and consequent identity with all and everything, therefore it became all.
To understand the quote in a more intimate way the artists and architects have meditated upon the verse both in its original Sanskrit and in English. For the painters this has meant spending half an hour each day before starting work meditating on the verse, and letting it come to mind throughout the day. The key to this meditative practice is an open awareness, free of thoughts and judgements, with this clarity of perception a deeper understanding of the verse may come, or images and ideas which could be used as a basis for designs.
The essence of the brief for the architectural space was as follows:
- To create a space at the heart of Waterperry House, as a suitable setting for a cycle of fresco paintings to be undertaken by the artists in the school depicting the teachings of Advaita Vedanta.
- The space should be designed to be harmoniously proportioned throughout and to use materials and methods of construction to last atleast 300 years.
- The aim is for the architecture and the art to combine to lift the mind and spirit of all who enter the space.
- The space should reflect the essence of the verse quoted above.
Opportunities and limitations.
The site initially had a number of opportunities and limitations as shown in the photos and described below:
1. 2nd floor landing – an internal space with no natural light and an integral part of the second floor fire escape arrangements. The photograph shows an exposed stone wall opposite, studwork partitions of varied age on the left, temporary fire protection to staircase on the right, and roof works under construction above.
2. Previous staircase – an imitation staircase installed in the second half of the twentieth century, final details never completed. Walls on either side of the staircase are non-structural. Existing position of the staircase imposes on the proposed geometry of the new hall.
3. 1st floor - looking towards Jacobean Wing; - showing asymmetry between the axis of the Jacobean Wing and the axis of the Georgian part of the building. Main truss supporting rear wall of Georgian house has a divisive effect on the space visually, and the Jacobean and Georgian ends of the Hall have different floor levels.
4. Ground floor - looking towards front hall; – unsuitable space for fresco painting without enhancing the provision of natural light. Position of the stairs interrupts the natural shape of the space, need to incorporate a final exit opening to the outside for fire escape purposes.
How the Upanishad verse relates to the architecture of the hall.
This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning.
It knew only Itself as, ‘l am Brahman.’
Therefore It became All.
- The 2nd floor landing - signifies Brahman, potent but unexpressed, complete but unmanifest.
- The Artists Hall - signifies Brahman fully expressed and the 3 statements of the Upanishad are expressed as the 3 principal axes that structure the space;
the vertical axis representing the first statement,
‘This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning.’
the first floor horizontal axis representing the second statement,
‘It knew only itself as, I am Brahman’.
and the ground floor horizontal axis representing the third statement,
‘Therefore it became all.’
• Staircase - It is possible to view the two spaces described above, as the Potential of Brahman and the Expression of Brahman and it is the staircase that provides the link between them. In Indian thought this twofold nature of God is expressed as Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman. Nir, meaning negative, no, without, unknowable, nothing. Sa meaning with, active, positive, knowable and guna being quality. Thus God is seen as having two aspects positive and negative. The entire creation being Saguna Brahman, the active, knowable form of Brahman. Nirguna Brahman being the unknowable, formless aspect of Brahman.
• Ratios - the numbers indicated on the axes signify the ratios used for setting the space out. The horizontal axes are set at 3 modules above each floor level (approximate height of a Man). The first floor axis extends in each direction from the vertical axis in the ratio of 3 : 2 to define the space and then extends further at each end. The ground floor axis also extends in each direction in the ratio of 2 : 3 to define the space, but in the opposite direction to the first floor and is then contained rather than open ended.
Measure, harmony and proportion
Existing House - the proportions of the existing house have inevitably influenced the proportions used in the new hall. The floor to floor heights in the new space have been designed to relate to those of the existing building and have formed a basis for establishing a module.
Module - the module is a measure derived from the dimensions of the
existing space, and is the basic unit or to quote Vitruvius "the standard of symmetry" from which the space is proportioned. The module for the new hall is 24 3/4 inchs or 62.9 cm.
Proportion - after the module was established, all the key elements of the space where dimensioned using a system of proportion based upon simple whole number ratios of the natural octave. This ranged from the overall dimensions of the space through to the dimensions of the individual spacial elements (doors, windows, etc) that comprise the space, right down to the components such as bridge details, door details and architrave’s.
The paintings and thier concept.
The painting aspect of the project is an expansion on the verse from the Upanishad. Taking the verse as the main theme of the hall, and using its expression in the architecture as a framework, ideas were then chosen to expand on this concept while relating to the framework.
The painting scheme of the hall has been split into three main areas, one for each floor, based upon broad divisions of life in the Advaita philosophy. The physical, subtle/mental and causal realms.
Thus the second floor landing and the upper floor of the hall is to be a collection of ideas depicting Brahman unmanifest. The first floor is devoted to the subtle world of ideas and laws. The ground floor is to be an expression of the physical world. Almost all of the ideas depicted in fresco have been taken from conversations between the Shankaracharya of Northern India, Shantananda Saraswati and the founder of the school Leon McLaren.
A brief overview of the ideas for each level is as follows:
Second floor landing -Hiranyagarbha. The cosmic egg of creation.
Second floor new hall -Wyatireka & Anwaya. A meditation process.
Causal realm -Tree of Samsara. Its roots beginning in the top floor and branches, etc spreading into the lower floors.
First floor -Meditation
Subtle/mental realm -Six modifications of beings.
-Story of Yajnawalkya, Maitreyi & Katyayani.
Depicting the contemplative and active aspects of life.
-Shakti. Sixteen forces of creation.
-Wywartawada. Dissolution and creation of forms.
Ground floor. -The laws of Manu. Types of birth in physical world.
Physical realm -Selection of ideas and analogies yet to be decided.
Below are two of the texts reflected and meditated upon from which the designs have been based:
Six Modifications of Beings
"Human beings and all other beings who have a body are all in flux, movement. They keep moving towards the same cause, which moves them to manifestation. This movement has six modifications:
... is the existence, something in time and space... that something is born... having been born it grows... being fully grown, it stops and changes gear... it decays.. having decayed it disappears into the elements which were the cause of its other modifications."
Laws of Manu. Types of birth.
One of the other ideas drawn upon is a description, in The Laws of Manu, of the different types of beings. This has been taken as a basis for the ground floor design and a sculptural piece.
• "But whatever act is stated (to belong) to (each of) those creatures here below, that I will truly declare to you, as well as their order in respect to birth.
• Cattle, deer, carnivorous beasts with two rows of teeth, Rakshasas (demons), Pisakas, and men are born from the womb.
• From eggs are born birds, snakes, crocodiles, fishes, tortoises, as well as similar terrestrial and aquatic animals.
• From hot moisture spring stinging and biting insects, lice, flies, bugs and all other creatures of that kind which are produced by heat.
• All plants, propagated by seed or by slips, grow from shoots; annual plants are those which, bearing many flowers and fruits, perish after the ripening of their fruit;
• Those trees which bear fruit without flowers are called vanaspati (lords of the forest); but those which bear both flowers and fruit are called vriksha.
• But the various plants with many stalks, growing from one or several roots, the different kinds of grasses, the climbing plants and the creepers spring all from seed or from slips.
• These plants which are surrounded by multiform Darkness, the result of their acts in former existences, possess internal consciousness and experience pleasure and pain."
The Laws of Manu. Chp 1. Verses 42-48.
The artists have been asked to design the work with a few general principles in mind. Hopefully this will add to the cohesiveness of the many varying designs, and the simplicity of the whole project. The emphasis away from visual perspective and modelling are based upon the idea in Advaita of the unreality of the physical world.
- The designs should be clear, simple and pure.
- Limited palette of fresco colours,
Aswell as technical reasons this will hopefully bring a unified colour scheme.
- The overall effect should be one of beauty.
- No use of vanishing point perspective.
- Minimal modelling in 3 dimensions, instead an emphasis on line and shape.
The technique of fresco painting and its history.
To execute the paintings the technique of fresco was chosen. The main reason for this is the incredible stability of the medium. Because the colours are actually painted into wet plaster, they are absorbed into the wall and become a part of it rather than a skin upon it. In the right conditions the image retains its initial richness of colour for hundreds, if not a thousand years.
The technique of fresco painting is quite ancient, dating back to Egyptian times. It flourished in Europe and the Byzantine world in the Middle Ages, and enjoyed a brief but spectacular revival in the Italian Renaissance. It has continued into modern times although not with such popularity.
The wall or other support is first covered with two coats of rough plaster consisting of coarse sand and lime putty (slaked quicklime).This levels any unevenness in the wall surface and gives the basis for the final topcoat. The support in the case of Waterperry house is a mixture of oak lathes/struts and stainless steel mesh. This is the current stage of the walls on the project.
The current stage we (painters) are at now, is of design full size cartoons. The walls have nearly all been covered in paper upon which we have drawn up and redrawn various designs. Most of these full size designs have been taken from small sketches and then expanded in size using grids. Initially the full size designs have been worked out in lines only and then the colour looked at. The process has taken up most of the work time so far, roughly 9 months.
After the designs are complete and ready to paint, (we are aiming to begin painting at the start of February 2001), the prepared full-size designs/cartoons are transferred to the wall behind by pouncing. Pouncing involves punching the lines of the drawing with many small holes and dusting them with a pigment or powdered charcoal. The powder passes through the holes to leave a trace of dots on the wall. These are then painted in to establish the basic lines of the design on the plaster wall. This forms a map or diagram of the overall design.
The painter then decides how much work he can finish in a day or two, and then plasters over the underdrawing with a thin layer of top coat plaster made of lime putty and fine sand (intonaco). This, of course, covers the drawing. The cartoon for that section is then positioned and re-pounced on to this fresh plaster and lined in. It must be remembered that the fresco painter only plasters up an area at a time. The size of the area they plaster and then paint on, depends on two factors:
-The drying time of the wall. How long it will take for that area to dry.
A half day, 1 day, or 2 days?
-The amount of work they can do in this time.
If it’s a head they are painting this might take the full two days, thus a small area is plastered. If it’s a flat background an entire wall might be plastered and painted.
The artist is now ready to apply colours on to the fresh plaster. The colours available to the fresco painter are limited to those compatible with lime, and the white for fresco is the same lime putty as used to mix the plaster. All the fresco paint consists of is dried and ground paint pigment and the desired amount of water mixed with it. The powdered pigment can be either made oneself from rock, etc or ofcourse bought as we have.
To work on this fresh plaster, the artist only has between a few hours, or up to two days depending on the environment, after which it will no longer absorbs the colours. The painter must either finish the work in one session or complete it after the plaster has dried. Working on dry plaster is called ‘secco’ and working on the wet plaster ‘buon’ fresco. The painting onto dry plaster requires the addition of a medium, such as glue or tempera, rather than the water of buon fresco, to make the colours adhere. Secco has the advantage of giving the artist much more time to work but is considered less permanent. One of the merits of painting on fresh plaster is that the colours are absorbed into the plaster and become integral to the wall. This gives a very beautiful and durable painting technique. Both methods are useful, but there is a challenge and a charm in painting buon fresco not to be found in any other technique. Both methods will be employed at Waterperry but we hope the majority will be done in buon fresco.
At the end of the day’s painting, an edge is cut around the completed part of the work and excess plaster removed. When the next section is begun it is plastered and carefully joined to the previous work. The relevant section of cartoon is then positioned and pounced, this is then painted and cut ready for the following day’s work. Starting from the top of the hall down, this whole process repeats until the final piece of the ‘jigsaw’ is painted in. To finish the whole thing can be worked over to a greater or lesser extent in secco.
The brief for the sculptural aspect of the project consists of two works:
• A relief of the Ten laws of Manu
• A free standing sculpture of the different forms of life, to go on the ground floor infront of where the spiral stairs finish.
The relief sculpture, designed by Nathan David, is for a wall, (approximately 8ft square), at the top of the proposed new staircase. It will present the Ten laws of Manu. As part of the Advaita tradition the tenfold laws are taken as a guide to be studied and enacted throughout life, to bring about prosperity and freedom.
- Constancy / patience
- Self control
- Abstinence from theft
- Purification of mind, body and heart
- Mastery of the senses
- Wisdom. Use of the intellect
- Knowledge of the Self
- Non agitation/anger
Each law will be represented by a low-relief plaque, modelled in clay and cast into polyester resin with ivory patination. The dimensions of each plaque will be a square of 62.9cm = 1 module. Initially the designs are carried out to a scale of one half or one third, then when complete and mounted illuminated by fibre optic lights.
The free-standing sculpture to be carved by Simon Buchanan, will be situated at the entrance to the stairs on the ground floor. The sculpture will be carved out of stone roughly about 7ft high and in a column like shape. The sculpture like the predominant design on the ground floor will be based around the ideas in The laws of Manu on the different forms of life.
The whole project of rejuvenating Waterperry House has been taken on not only for its practical need, but also for the challenge of creating a sacred space. The designing, building, painting and all the other work has been undertaken as a form of spiritual practice, in a way a form of meditation. An act hopefully expressing some of the ideas of Advaita, aswell as moving towards a greater and fuller understanding of these.
Motilal Banarsidass Publishers
The Rig-Veda Sanhita
Jyotirinidhi Nyasa Trust.