The Andrew Alpern Collection of Drawing Instruments
January 12, 2011
I have been studying the fantastic Andrew Alpern Collection of Drawing Instruments, housed at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library at Columbia Universtiy. It is an amazing group of English, Continental, and American drafting tools and instruments dating from 1700 to 2004, acquired over a 40 year period by Mr. Alpern, a lawyer turned architect, architectural historian and preservationist. He made a gift of the collection to the Avery in 2006 where it was catalogued and made available to researchers and students of design. It is also documented in a recently published book produced by W.W. Norton.
The objects include scales, rules, compasses, and various tools whose use would be unrecognized by many of today’s architects. They are made of materials of great quality--silver, brass, tortoiseshell, ivory, sharkskin--and lovingly housed in mahogany cases with velvet interiors and hand forged hardware. These pieces exhibit a level of craftsmanship not found today and would be seen as luxury objects, if they could be had at all. It is interesting to consider that they were once a vital instrument for an architect or engineer who invested in them with the intent of having them by their sides throughout their long careers.
Of course, today’s architects do their drawings on computers and print them out via plotters. They would be frustrated by the process of creating drawings with a set of instruments, each with a very specific purpose. And, it is clear that their drawings are very different from those of old. Software makes the mechanics of coming up with perfectly proportioned circles or angles very easy, yet what you see and feel is very different. This may be partly due to the absence of the distinct hand of an individual artist but I think there are other factors. Every detail can be so easily manipulated and revised without leaving a trace and drawing layouts do not have to be so well considered at the start because you can quickly change course at any point. It is clearly efficient, but certain qualities are lost in the process.
I know that I am a romantic, and was trained in the old school without the benefit of computers, but the computer has still not matched the finesse that results from these types of tools.
From top: Brass and ivory drawing instruments in a fine silver mounted tortoise shell covered wood etui, made by William Elliot & Sons, c. 1855, English; an exceptionally large and comprehensive set of Architect’s instruments made by Elliot Brothers, English, third quarter of the 19th century; a brass pantograph in wood case, used for enlarging, reducing or copying a drawing with precision. Made by Benjamin Martin, English, third quarter of 18th century; a pair of brass multi function instruments combining scales, parallel rule, protractor and plotting index arm with vernier readout, American, early 19th century, bottom by A. Dod in Mendham, New Jersey; brass and steel compasses from an exceptionally large set, French, mid 19th century; and nickel silver, ivory and ebony instruments in oak case, by W. F. Stanley & Co, England, fourth quarter of 19th century.