A sumptuous new book takes an artist’s-eye view of York and its finest buildings and streets. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

WHEN you were out and about in the centre of York in 2012 and 2013, you might have noticed a scholarly-looking man with a sketchbook and watercolours.

He'd have been leaning against a wall or sitting quietly at the side of the street, busily painting, his head bobbing up and down to check his work against the scene in front of him.

That man may well have been Hubert Pragnell and the paintings he was working on could even have included some of those on these pages.

They come from a stunning new book – York: An Artist's View, An Architectural Guide – in which Mr Pragnell celebrates the beauty and variety of York's architecture in a series of almost 100 sumptuous watercolours and pen-and-ink drawings.

Most were done on the spot, sitting or standing at the side of the road or in hidden courtyards or side alleys in York, he says.

"I'd walk around, then sit down and start drawing or painting. Actually, often I would be standing, with a piece of paper or a sketchbook. You observe so many things if you are on the spot."

He's always loved good buildings, Mr Pragnell admits. He grew up near Greenwich in London – home of the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory. "So I had a lot of splendid buildings to admire."

At school, he was told his maths wasn't good enough for him to become an architect. So he studied fine art in Oxford instead, then later history at university in first Kent and then York.

He's now a part-time tutor in the history of architecture in Oxford, as well as a gifted watercolourist who has exhibited in London, and at Canterbury Cathedral and York Minster.

He has never lost that eye for a good building, and architecturally speaking York is one of his favourite cities.

It has a wonderful mix of buildings and architectural styles, from Roman to medieval, Georgian and modern architecture such as the new St John University building on the corner of Lord Mayor's walk and Clarence Street. And the distinctive York brick which is common in so many buildings has a lovely texture, he says.

It was his interest in railway history that first drew him to York. But he's been back many times since – he's even cycled here, more than once, from his home in Canterbury.

He visited many times while doing the paintings for his book. It is intended, he says, as a kind of walking guide to the city – one which will encourage people to look at the buildings, and to get away from the main streets to see some of the city's hidden courtyards and side alleys. "Some of the best things to see are in the side streets, or the snickelways."

He describes the book, in his introduction, as a 'pictorial journey' – and that is exactly what it is. The aim was not only to produce a series of postcard views, he says, but to "show the city as it is, with contrasting styles and sometimes dramatically clashing building scales".

York Press:
 St Olave’s church and entrance to St Mary’s Abbey

It is the architectural detail in his book that makes it so special. That lovely old York brick seems to glow in his paintings.

"The red pantiles and brick walls add a striking note of warmth," he writes, in a passage that accompanies his painting of the Minster seen from Chapter House Street. The character of the street, he adds, is "much enhanced by the retention of the cobbles". Looking at his painting, you can see how it really is.

He notices tiny details that less observant visitors would miss - such as the carved angel on Stonegate, its expression almost seraphic. The angel is mounted on a 16th century corner post, he notes.

Then there are the sweeping panoramas – such as the one taking in a stretch of the west bank of the River Ouse, observed presumably from the walkway behind City Screen.

York Press: South bank of River Ouse
South bank of River Ouse

That one stretch of riverbank is a wonderful jumble of styles and periods, from the modern Aviva office block to the lovely jettied and timbered brick front of Church Cottages and, next to them, the soaring spire and grey stone body of All Saints, North Street, which is, Mr Pragnell notes, "one of York's most interesting medieval churches."

York: An Artist's View, An Architectural Guide by Hubert Pragnell is published by Northern Arts Publications, priced £20. It is available direct from the publisher at jeremymillspublishing.co.uk or by phoning 01484 463341.