The word on drawings!

 

Reading Drawings is our latest display in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery. We asked curator Dr Rachel Hapoienu to tell us about the display and how it came about. 

The subject of inscriptions on drawings was an especially enticing one for me to tackle, as my role as the Drawings Cataloguer (IMAF Project) for The Courtauld Gallery requires me to examine every one of our over 7,000 drawings and meticulously record each inscription and mark. My initial list of potential objects for this display ran to a few hundred works, posing a serious challenge in how to narrow it down.

I knew I wanted to include a large section on signatures and names – these are the most common types of inscriptions, and though their frequency might make them seem a bit banal, for a cataloguer a signature is always exciting! However, this display urges caution in declaring a signature as genuine, because sometimes later owners added names of artists to the drawings they owned, and of course some forgers created fake signatures to deceive buyers into thinking their works were executed by a famous master.  One such drawing in this display, depicting a female nude, is a forgery in the manner of Rodin. The forger, known to scholars simply as ‘Hand B’, attempted to replicate both Rodin’s style and his signature. Closer inspection of the forger’s lines reveals that he applied pressure with his pencil too evenly throughout both the figure and the fake name, which is uncharacteristic of Rodin’s technique. This discrepancy combined with the figure’s unsophisticated anatomy and the prevalence of unnecessary lines helped to identify this work as a deliberate forgery.

Forgery in the manner of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Female nude, around 1917-1920

One drawing I knew I had to include is attributed to an artist in Raphael’s studio. The sheet is split in half, with text on the upper portion and below a somewhat puzzling scene of soldiers in a tent surrounding a bare-chested man drinking from a goblet. By comparing the imagery to paintings, prints and drawings with similar iconography, I determined the scene may be of ‘Alexander the Great and his physician’, showing the moment Alexander downs his medicine. Adding to the intriguing quality of this sheet is the text, which was written before the image was drawn. It lists the days of the week with corresponding food items, mainly bread and meat. The idea of keeping a ‘food diary’ is probably familiar to many of our visitors, and offers a charming parallel with the author of the inscription, who lived around 500 years ago. This sheet also helps evoke the atmosphere of a Renaissance workshop, where drawings were not considered prized works of art and every spare bit of paper was utilised.

 

Studio of Raphael (1483-1520), Alexander the Great drinking his medicine, around 1520s

I also wanted to highlight the different reasons artists might annotate their own works. Many of their notes were intended as instructions or explanations for an assistant or another artist, such as an engraver who was meant to transform the drawing into a print, or an architect who would use the drawing as a plan for constructing a building. Sometimes artists were trying so quickly to capture a scene out-of-doors that they would scribble notes to themselves on how to fill in the details once back in the relative calm of their studio.  In the current display, one of the most interesting methods of note-taking is demonstrated by a drawing of Cader Idris in Wales, by James Ward. In one three-month period Ward made over 500 landscape sketches, so he would use a rapid writing system called ‘shorthand’ to facilitate such productivity. In this strange-looking script, each symbol represents a word, and thus is a quicker method than using the conventional alphabet. Ward’s shorthand notes are mainly instructions to himself on what colour washes should be added to each area of the landscape.

James Ward (1769-1859), View of Cader Idris, Wales, 1802 or 1807

Another priority for me was to highlight drawings that have rarely, if ever, been on display before – The Courtauld has so many drawings that inevitably many never see the light of day. Of the twenty-three drawings on view, eight had previously never been exhibited, so a visit to Reading Drawings offers a rare opportunity to see some gems from our collection!

By Dr Rachel Hapoienu

 

Reading DrawingsOn display until 4 June 2017

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Last chance to see: Civic Utopia

 

We asked Dr Rachel Sloane, Assistant Curator of prints and Drawings to tell us about our latest display in the Drawings Gallery

Utopia

Over the course of 2016, every corner of Somerset House has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia with a rich and varied programme of exhibitions and events, UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility. The Courtauld Gallery’s own contribution to this celebration, A Civic Utopia: Architecture and the City in France, 1765-1837, is currently on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawing Gallery (to 8 January).

Civic Utopia considers the power of architecture and urban planning to shape and influence ideas of public life, focusing on the work of architects in France during and immediately after the Age of Enlightenment (1765-1837). Instead of focusing on grandiose (and often unrealised, or unrealisable) edifices, the emphasis is firmly on the everyday and on spaces where a broad cross-section of society mingled, including city markets, exchange halls, prisons, parks, abattoirs, hospitals and cemeteries. The exhibition has been organised in partnership with a major collection of architectural drawings, the Drawing Matter Trust, and we have been very fortunate to be able to work with them and display some of their treasures in the Drawing Gallery.

Although the main focus of Drawing Matter Trust, as its name suggests, is drawings, it also holds some fascinating three-dimensional objects, two of which are form part of the exhibition. In the centre of the gallery is a table on which are displayed – as in an architect’s office – drawings and watercolours depicting gateways and boundaries of cities, from a post-Revolutionary scheme for the Place de la Concorde by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1811) to a delicate black chalk drawing by Georges Michel of the Place and Barrière de la Nation, showing a much more open and convivial space than today’s traffic-clogged roundabout. The top of the table was designed and produced especially for the exhibition, but look beneath it and you’ll find two dazzling pieces of eighteenth-century craftsmanship: the trestle legs are journeyman pieces produced by cabinetmakers as a way of showing off their skills in the widest possible range of joinery techniques.

It is especially fitting that the exhibition is taking place within Somerset House, since William Chambers’s design follows many of the same principles that informed the utopian vision of the city that these architects pursued. Come and see these how these architects tackled the challenge of creating ideal urban spaces – and a living, breathing example of such a space.

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