Saturday, October 27, 2007

BritArt in History - RA exhibits admirable collections of British drawings

The Friends' Room
11" x 16", pen and ink and coloured pencil

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Yesterday we visited two exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts - An American's passion for British Art - Paul Mellon's Legacy and Making History - Antiquaries in Britain 1701-2007. Both had excellent and unusual examples of drawings made by British artists, often of British places or British historical figures. It was BritArt of a completely different kind.

I started to make notes and covered 3 pages but there was just so much that I think I really must go back again for another view (which is one of the joys of being a Friend of the RA - others being the sofas in the Friends Room - above - after being on my feet for a long time and also being able to take a friend of mine in for free!).

What I wasn't expecting was the large quantity of drawings in both exhibitions.

Nor was I expecting to find that both exhibitions are something approaching an indictment of the way in which national British institutions appear to have neglected to collect paintings and drawings in British Art over a long period of time. What can be seen in these exhibitions exists because of that neglect. I saw more drawings of and about Britain by British artists and artists working in Britain than I think I've ever seen before or maybe will ever be able to do again.
None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities as England.
Nikolaus Pevsner, 1956 (Mellon- State of Neglect)
Here are some of the highlights from the combined visit to both exhibitions:
  • Drawing of as a study of places: pen and ink and wash and/or watercolour drawings of landscapes or important buildings by Constable, Turner, Thomas Girtin William Blake, and Samuel Palmer
  • Drawing in sketchbooks: including examples of Turner's sketchbooks
  • Drawing as study: Constable oil sketch studies of clouds (just clouds - nothing else except for a few birds)
  • Drawing as botanical art: more herbals of early botanical illustration than I've seen in a long time
  • Drawing as engraving: copper engraving plates of medieval scenes along with the print pulled
  • Drawing of anatomy: drawings by Stubbs of various animals
  • Drawing of cartoon: Rowlandson cartoons by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827)
Rowlandson’s designs were usually done in outline with the reed-pen, and delicately washed with colour. They were then etched by the artist on the copper, and afterwards aquatinted --usually by a professional engraver, the impressions being finally coloured by hand.
Wikipedia - ThomasRowlandson
  • drawing as mapping - all manner of maps of Great Britain - including those copied and derived from Ptolemy's Geographia produced in the first century after the birth of Christ.
  • drawing as an archeological record - drawings of important archeological finds were displayed alongside the artifact in question
  • drawing as genealogy - was well represented in a genealogical roll presented to Henry VI in 1455, tracing his descent from Adam and Eve via Noah - complete with illuminations and contained in a case some 20 odd feet long.
  • plus any number of drawings by artists I'm less familar with (such as Samuel Hieronymus Grimm!) but which were impressive nonetheless - I have a long list of names which need to plugged into my browser!
Contable, Turner, Girtin and Blake feature in both exhibitions and the Mellon Collection of Blake is world class. All are critical figures in the development of drawings in pen and ink and watercolour and the use of sketchbooks. Some were also employed as artists by the Society of Antiquaries.
Many members were competent draughtsmen, but it was recognised that the skill needed to record accurately the appearance of artefacts or buildings depended on professional training, and from the 1780s the Society employed suitably qualified artists.
Making History: Recording and illustrating
You can read more about the drawings on the website in:
You can find out more about the Society of Antiquaries, who are currently celebrating their tercentenary, on their website. This includes a sample of paintings they have collected. Unfortunately, although they have digitised their vast collection of drawings these appear to only be accessible to Fellows of the Society rather than the general public.
The Society possesses the UK's most important national collection of archaeological drawings , comprising over 5,000 drawings of archaeological finds, museum objects and antiquities from Britain and other countries.

In addition, the Library has one of the largest collections of topographical drawings in the country, consisting of around 20,000 drawings as well as a substantial number of prints.
Society of Antiquaries - Collections: Prints and Drawings
The exhibition of items from the collection of Paul Mellon (1907-1999) has been organised in conjunction with the Yale Centre for British Art (whose website is currently being repaired - you can read more about it here). I think I'll be paying a visit to New Haven, Connecticut the next time I'm visiting New England.
The collection of 20,000 drawings and watercolors, and 30,000 prints feature British sporting art and figure drawings. The collection includes works by Hogarth, Paul Sandby, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Rowlandson, William Blake, John Constable, Samuel Palmer, Richard Parkes Bonington, John Ruskin, J. M. W. Turner, Walter Sickert, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer, Augustus John, Gwen John, and the Pre-Raphaelites.
Wikipedia - Yale Centre for British Art
Sadly, all relevant websites are sadly deficient at present in terms of images of the drawings I saw. Which is why the image at the top of this post is my sketch of the Friends Room at the RA where we had the mandatory pot of tea after working our way round both exhibitions.


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