Magazine article The Spectator

Fine Lines

Magazine article The Spectator

Fine Lines

Article excerpt

The Poetry of Drawing: Pre-Raphaelite Designs, Studies and Watercolours Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until 15 May Drawings are often valued as an artist's first thoughts, the most direct and intimate expression of his or her response to a subject. Looking at a drawing, you feel you can see the artist's mind at work - in a much more spontaneous way than in a painting made from preparatory studies. Yet in the rather ridiculous established hierarchy of art, drawings are ranked much lower than paintings, perhaps because they are generally considered to be working tools, less durable than oil on canvas, and frequently not preserved with the same care as 'finished' pictures.

Our age, which is fascinated by process, gives more attention to drawings but still does not esteem them as highly as it might.

As a result, there are plenty of opportunities for collectors, if top-quality paintings are beyond their reach.

Perhaps not, though, in the Pre-Raphaelite marketplace. The great and sustained popularity of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has ensured that prices remain high, and many of the finest examples of PRB drawing are already in museum collections, as can be seen from this excellent exhibition.

Birmingham has long held the premier collection of PRB works on paper in the world, so it is the perfect place to stage this show.

If you have time and energy after doing justice to The Poetry of Drawing, wander upstairs for more PRB treats such as 'The Death of Chatterton', paintings by Arthur Hughes and Millais' famous 'Blind Girl'.

There is even a room of well-chosen 20thcentury British artists to bring us up to date, with fine examples of Paul Nash, Bomberg, Ben Nicholson and John Armstrong, and a couple of cracking Sickerts. Not to mention the Anglo-Saxon gold and silver from the Staffordshire Hoard.

The PRB show starts with a section called 'Challenging Academic Drawing', which highlights the kind of academic studies from the antique a student was expected to turn out. Here, too, are drawings from life, hefty nude figures among whose solidly drawn forms Rossetti's frail girl in 'Study for Ecce Ancilla Domini!' on pale-blue paper looks positively wispy. Rossetti is often considered to be a weak draughtsman, but he comes out rather well in this exhibition, clearly a master of a different kind of evocative markmaking, particularly effective with pen and ink or pastel. Here, too, are some early Ford Madox Brown drawings and watercolours, made for his unsuccessful entry to a mural competition for the Palace of Westminster, the subject 'Chaucer at the court of Edward III'; the pencil compositional study being the finest.

The PRB was founded in 1848 by Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais, and it must not be forgotten how radical their art appeared, how revolutionary. They saw the dead hand of the Academy everywhere, and wanted to supplant false academicism with honest naturalism and moral edification. And they were certainly industrious in their efforts. Look at the crisp observational drawing of Millais, the obsessive detail of Hunt or the atmospheric ink and wash of Rossetti.

Familiar figures emerge from PRB mythology - Lizzie Siddal, initially discovered and persuaded to sit by Walter Deverell, before Hunt and Rossetti got hold of her. Millais used her most famously as the model for his great painting of Ophelia floating downriver - the pen-and-ink compositional study for this is here, with a pencil head. …

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