A brief look through the Courtauld Institute’s course options paints a bleak picture for the study of British art. Italy and France
dominate and I dare say an exhibition presenting graphic works from one of these more celebrated artistic nations would not attempt what the Victoria and Albert has: to survey four hundred years of British drawing (from Issac Oliver to Siân Bowen) in the space of two small rooms. Yet it works perfectly, the curators have been careful to make wide reaching selections in subject, media, and artist, choices that inject the exhibition with a vigour that to many people its title might not suggest.
What becomes clear throughout the exhibition is that British art has been holding its own for more than four hundred years: from indigenous Brits, such as Frederic Leighton, almost natives like Lucian Freud, to those who spent their professional life in Britain, such as Henry Fuseli, Peter Lely and Antony van Dyck. Each of these five artists, not surprisingly, shines through particularly strongly. Fuseli’s black and white chalk portrait of Martha Hess was a personal favourite. It seems to owe much to the delicate silverpoint renderings of female faces by old masters like Verrocchio. Yet here, surrounded by a Constable country scene and a furiously sketched William Blake drawing it seemed curiously out of place, serving to remind that British art has continuously produced a multitude of fine works. This is something the curators must have intended in their selections.
Whether intentional or not the show’s small size seems perfectly suited to the realm of drawing. More often than painting, it is a private artistic pursuit. While most paintings are created with a public of some form in mind, drawings are usually for the artist’s personal use. The lineage from brain to pencil can be a pure and uninterrupted flow, in which ideas, thoughts, and secrets move more freely than in painting. Witness of this flow, made manifest in the marks on the paper, seems to provide insight into the private mind of the artist. And so covering four hundred years of an art form in two rooms begins to make sense when drawing is viewed in this way. The V&A seems to have tried to emphasise this closed personal world of drawing by attempting to transport the viewer into something similar: two small rooms for meditation and private appreciation on the products of some of the world’s greatest draughtsmen. In the first room, a cabinet of sketchbooks, never created with a viewer in mind, further adds to this feeling. The anecdotal descriptions of the drawings match this urge for insight into the mind of the artist, for instance telling us of Jonathan Richardson the Elder’s urge to draw a daily self-portrait as a kind of therapy.
Any bigger, this exhibition would have been overwhelming. It takes on an often overlooked subject and presents it in all its variously imagined glories. Most importantly, it serves to educate about the very nature of the art of drawing.
Thomas Mouna is a third-year BA at the Courtauld.
British Drawings: 1600 to the Present Day will be on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in Room 90 until the 13th April 2014. Entry is free.