Encounters at the NPG

This was not a photography show but an exhibition exploring “the creative encounter between artist and sitter through fifty Renaissance and Baroque portrait drawings”. I am keen to explore my knowledge of art and the context that it provides to me, as a photographer. Clearly, there are similarities, not least in how “the encounter” is as much an element of photographic portraits as of drawn or painted ones. And yet….

I felt more than a little bit out of my depth. Art as a school subject and I parted company when I was 13, and not on very good terms. I know nothing about how pictures are made, though I am learning. The first thing that stunned me was the age of these works. It’s actually impossible to see a photograph that’s anywhere near that age, and the very oldest ones will likely neither be open to public view again because of the light risks. When I realised that some of the drawings on display were over 500 years old, I suddenly realised how little I know about art, and what a very young discipline photography is by comparison.

The next jaw-dropping moment was when I read the panel that said “…drawing practice in Europe transformed when paper became more widely available…” There is so much that I take for granted!

Onto the drawings. There were just under 50 of them. Again, this seems very modest by photographic standards, where you might have a couple of hundred small prints under a glass topped table in the middle of a room, as well as all the prints on the walls. Student artists learned by copying other artists. work, and indeed this was how some studios worked, where all the artists in a studio made work to such similar styles that it’s hard to individually attribute each work now. Drawings were often done as a precursor to a painted portrait, or artists might make them for practice. It was interesting that you could see the creation marks and evidence of previous choices on some of the drawings, resulting in perhaps an extra foot or eye on the final version. But it’s only “final” in that that’s the single one that we’re seeing, in reality there might have been several different versions. I bought the catalogue and in there we can see different versions of the same portrait on its route to resolution.

Every one seems to have an individual drawing style (not withstanding those who chose to work to a house style. I look at the limited resources available for drawing, and marvel (and covet) the skill of those who could work with chalk, graphite and ink in a wide variety of styles and showing light, shade, tone and texture.

I wasn’t really expecting to engage with any of the work, but was smitten by one or two. The most memorable for me was a set of figure studies by Rembrandt, that included sketches of a woman nursing a child. I don’t really know why these are so compelling, but they are the reason I bought the book.


Phone photo of part of sheet of Rembrandt sketches


So the next steps are to continue, in slow time, exploring art and its history. I have been watching a series of videos on the OCA website and that is building my knowledge, at home I am reading a translation of letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother, illustrated with many sketches that he enclosed. Who knew that Van Gogh did some drawings in London? Certainly not me. But it’s fascinating.

The Encounter – Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt, Tarnya Cooper and Charlotte Bolland, NPG 2017 London.


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