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.
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.
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.
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 Drawings, On display until 4 June 2017