Prof Keith Critchlow, a kin of Pakistani art

April 19, 2020

He founded the Department of Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts at the Royal College of Art in 1984

‘Keith says…’ This used to be the opening line of formal letters addressed to students of the Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts (VITA) Department at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London, where I was a student of the Painting School, during 1989-91.

For a person used to language and structure of official correspondence in Pakistan, this form of address was unusual and shocking, to say the least.

But not for long.

As I started observing Prof Dr Keith Critchlow interacting with his students, I realised that there was not much of a difference between the tone of his written and spoken words.

He remained accessible, friendly, and forthcoming, not only to his students, but also to outsiders like me.

Critchlow himself was a sort of outsider. Trained as a painter from St Martin’s School of Art, and RCA (1954-57), he joined RCA as a tutor in 1973, where he founded the Department of Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts in 1984. He moved the department to the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts (PSTA), London, in 1992-3.

In the catalogue of Exhibition Road, a show of former graduates and tutors of RCA Painting School (1988), Critchlow is described as: “a unique example in the art world — a painter, geometer and architect who moves effortlessly between aesthetics and higher mathematics… Critchlow has studied geometry and form, sacred patterns and order in space, and he is an acknowledged authority on sacred architecture.”

He was one of those who brought sacred geometry from the nice, but neglected niche of craft to the arena of mainstream art. His investigation, inquiry and analysis of sacred geometry is evident in his seminal book: Islamic Patterns (1976). It was followed by Order in Space and several similar works.

Through his writings, teaching and work (he did practice as a painter too), he explained the hidden meaning in patterns which are often praised only for their perfection, execution, repetition and continuation with the past.

Through his texts, many contemporary artists discovered the link between divinity and interconnecting hexagonal shapes and variations of six pointed stars that are made with interlocked triangles.

Dr Critchlow was “a leading expert in sacred architecture and sacred geometry and founded Kiaros, a society which investigates, studies, and promotes traditional values of art and science. He served there as director of studies”. He was also a co-founder of the journal Temeno.

He lived, worked and taught in the UK. However, his contribution to people who came from a background of traditional visual practice is also great because his genius was not limited to geometry.

He brought sacred geometry from a neglected niche of craft to the arena of mainstream art.

I recall attending a lecture on oblique perspective in miniature painting, organised at the VITA in early 1990s. The guest speaker delivered an uninteresting speech on the subject. Then Prof Critchlow took the floor and, referring to just one point, enlightened the audience on the symbolism of geometric constructions in miniature painting. What we perceive as decorative patterns are loaded with meaning, since paintings are coded entities, dealing with concepts of divinity. Muslim image-makers, instead of portraying holy personalities, represented them through shapes and forms.

Thus, for an artist belonging to a traditional society or a painter of Turkish/Persian miniatures, a stone carver of Muslim Spain, a mosaic-maker from Mughal India, or a creator of Indian Tantric manuscripts, the act of producing ornaments is not merely an exercise in pictorial engagement, but also a spiritual sojourn. Perfection sought by the painter is not purely formal, but also a means to reach the perfection of the Sacred.

In the department established by Critchlow, first at RCA and later at the PSTA, a number of Pakistani artists were trained. These included Fatima Zahra Hassan, Veeda Ahmed, Akif Suri and Naveed Sadiq, along with many from across the world, such as New York-based artist Amina Ahmed.

Those who studied at the department as well as others who love sacred geometry owe him a lot. It is nearly impossible to get his book Sacred Patterns issued from the NCA Library because it is always in great demand. Students, not only from miniature painting, but also from architecture, are interested in his work because Critchlow’s contribution is both in architecture and painting.

He worked as a lecturer at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London for 12 years and his “architectural work includes the Krishnamurti Study Centre in England, the Lindisfarne Chapel in Crestone, Colorado, in the United States with a special design for the vaulting of the dome, and The Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences in Puttaparthi, India.”

His ideas on architecture have a connection to Pakistan, too. In his book, Modernity and Tradition, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the leading architect of the country and a former head of Architecture Department at the NCA (1966-77), recounts: “In the early sixties, I began to experiment with the geometry of forms derived from simple basic units. Then at Kumasi in Ghana, I had an opportunity to work with Buckminster Fuller and Keith Critchlow, and both of them had a very strong influence on my work”. The first London exhibition of American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller had been organised by Critchlow.

Both as a tutor at the Royal College of Art and as Professor Emeritus at Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, Critchlow remained accessible to all seekers of knowledge.

I still recall him as an open and eager person, available to even a painter who came from Pakistan, and had nothing to do with sacred or any other geometry.

His comments on my work made me think beyond the limitations of contemporary art and helped me place my imagery in the broad context of history.

A young student cannot always fully appreciate a great educator, but his instinct recognises the presence of one. If not during studies, then surely during later years, such greatness fully reveals itself to the pupils. In my case, Prof Keith Critchlow’s words resonate in my mind whenever I solve a pictorial problem.

Keith Critchlow passed away on April 7, at the age of 87.

Prof Keith Critchlow, a kin of Pakistani art