A Personal Remembrance of Keith Critchlow
By Nicholas Cope
Keith Critchlow (1933 – 2020) was one of the great figures in the resurgence of sacred architecture in the late 20th Century and beyond. Apart from his academic position as professor at the Royal College of Art, he was also a founder of RILKO, the Research into Lost Knowledge Organization in Britain that did so much to bring back the wisdom of the Western Esoteric Tradition. He was the author of many books including Order in Space and Time Stands Still, president emeritus of the Temenos Academy in London, and spoke multiple times at the Open Center itself and on our Esoteric Quests.
I first met Keith Critchlow in London in 1982 as a second-year degree student in fine art painting at Wimbledon School of Art. I was 21, and working on a few large abstract paintings that I hoped would express some loose and, for me, still-undefined spiritual ideas, such as karma. Keith was about to start teaching at the college, and the director of the course suggested that because of his knowledge of sacred art he would make an ideal personal tutor for me. Although I knew nothing about Keith at the time, in the few months that he taught at the college he made a profound impression on me. His initial lecture opened my eyes to the true nature of order and harmony, and to the potential for creating beautiful works of art whose meaning lies beyond mere appearance and can indeed express metaphysical truth. Keith would continue to be an enormous inspiration for me over the next 38 years.
Keith had a deep and passionate appreciation for the practice of sacred geometry and its symbolic significance within the context of all spiritual traditions. He often quoted Socrates’ observation in Plato’s Republic — “Geometry is the art of the ever true” — referring to geometry’s ability to help express profound and eternal truths wherever and whenever cultural conditions favor their expression. Because of its potential in achieving this sacred purpose, Keith considered the tool of the geometer, the compass, to be the most important instrument ever devised by humankind.
A few years later, in 1989, I was thrilled to be accepted into Keith’s course in ‘Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts’ (V.I.T.A) at the Royal College of Art. I was drawn to this unique course not only because Keith was its creator and director, but also because he was the guiding light behind the principles it embodied. Under his guidance I began to appreciate ever more the significance of geometry, not only in the many varied forms of traditional art but also in the wider context of human spiritual development, both cultural and personal.
Many years later, after showing Keith my 22 years’ research on the Neolithic site known as the Knap of Howar on Orkney, off the north coast of Scotland, he suggested that we collaborate on a book, which was published in 2016 as The Knap of Howar and the Origins of Geometry (Kairos Publications). I again thank Keith for his generous support and insightful contributions, which made this book possible.
The lasting legacy of Keith’s work is best expressed, I think, by the author John Michell:
“Great minds and noble spirits have gone before us in the field of geometry. Still living is one whose influence in the modern renaissance of philosophical geometry in the ancient tradition is primary. He is our Pythagoras, a revealer of neglected truths and a teacher who has inspired and transformed generations of students from all over the world, Keith Critchlow.”
I count myself as both lucky and privileged to have played a very small part in this great man’s life, and to have reaped the rich rewards of his teaching.
From 1989-1991 Nicholas Cope attended the Royal College of Art where he gained his Masters on the ‘Visual Islamic and Traditional Arts’. His main focus being the study of symbolic geometry underlying both Islamic and Traditional Art as a whole. His studies have extended to the analysis of Traditional British Neolithic structures. This includes dwelling places, stone circles and burial tombs. Some of these appear to express geometric properties and symbolisms of the same order as Traditional Islamic Art. Nicholas has recently published a book in collaboration with Prof. Keith Critchlow entitled ‘The Knap of Howar and the Origins of Geometry’, concerning a Neolithic site on Orkney c.3,500 BC. Its layout appears to be governed by geometric proportions that are not acknowledged to have been known about before around 400 BC in ancient Greece.
The most important influences on his recent artwork and writing are the themes expressed by a group of writers central to the ‘Traditionalist School’, in particular Rene Guenon 1886-1951. Their central concept is the ‘Sophia Perennis’, the ‘Perennial Wisdom’ – a perspective that views all the world’s traditions as an expression of the One Universal Truth. Nicholas is the current Professor Emeritus for R.I.L.K.O. (The Research into Lost Knowledge Organisation). ncope.co.uk