As I pointed out last week, one of the chief attractions of the Treasures from Budapest show at the Royal Academy is the inclusion of two rooms of Old Master drawings. For those of us who find large exhibitions overwhelming, there is a refreshingly modest display of French drawings (admission free) at the Wallace Collection, which makes a good companion to the RA’s blockbuster.

The earliest work is a fanciful, somehow ethereal, black-chalk and brown-wash 16th-century drawing of a water festival at Fontainebleau, by Antoine Caron. Much tougher is a neighbouring red-chalk study by Jacques Callot, ‘Ecce Homo’. Despite a certain vulgarity of pose and gesture, it has a brash energy that buttonholes the viewer in a way the Caron never could. A gentle little Claude landscape is rather eclipsed by one of the reasons for visiting this exhibition: Poussin’s brown-ink drawing next to it. This study for his great painting ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’, owned by the Wallace and the inspiration for Anthony Powell’s great novel-cycle, is far less of a linear design than might be expected. It is a dance of volumes, as the ink wash is made to suggest form: a thrillingly detailed compositional study.

Two drawings by Watteau are next to claim attention — an exquisite red chalk of two standing men and a seated woman, very finely executed, and a much broader drawing, apparently in brown oil (though it looks like crayon), of two couples getting on a boat. Marvellous economy. This is a very distinguished collection of drawings, acquired over the past 30 years by the National Gallery of Scotland. Even the things I don’t like so much are good examples. For instance, the powerful ‘Tavern Brawl’ in cross-gartered brown ink by Pierre-Alexandre Wille. Or Etienne Jeaurat’s well-mannered domestic interior in chalks heightened with white gouache.

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The second room numbers among its treasures a crisp pencil profile by Ingres, its icy precision gentled by an apparently affectionate delicacy; a carefully detailed black-chalk townscape by Boisselier; and a contrastingly freely executed and modern-looking image of two lovers by Baron Gros. Then there’s ‘Mountainous Landscape’ in black chalk by Mandevare. If you saw this on its own, without the distraction of great names, you could happily spend time studying it. But there’s Delacroix and Harpignies and Pissarro to compete with. That’s the trouble with a show of this sort: the stars blind you to the lesser lights. Only an arresting image like Roguin’s ‘Jewish Woman of Algiers’, in which the gentle slope of her pregnant belly is balanced by a tall cone-shaped headdress, has a chance against such masterpieces as Seurat’s ‘Study of a Boy’. This beautiful conté drawing is perhaps the best reason for visiting the show.

At the Fine Art Society is a stimulating and enjoyable exhibition entitled Counterpoint, which focuses on realist painting in Britain, 1910 to 1950. As a show it is designed to welcome Robert Upstone to the gallery team (he comes from the Tate, where he curated the 2008 Camden Town survey, among other things), and to remind us that, beside the avant-garde developments in abstraction in the first half of the 20th century, there was a strong alternative tradition of realism that was every bit as modern and relevant. Upstone points out in his catalogue introduction that when Meredith Frampton (1894–1984, and one of the artists featured here) was hung alongside Christian Schad and the painters of the German Neue Sachlichkeit at Tate Modern’s inauguration in 2000, his work looked quite at home and encouraged viewers to change their perceptions of it. As so often the case, context is all.

One of my favourite painters here is Algernon Newton (1880–1968), the English Canaletto, celebrated for his golden scenes of London’s canals. He was also a poet of trees, a dab hand at the different textures of sunlit foliage, as can be seen from the magnificent example here, ‘Plane Trees in Hyde Park’ (1948). His exactitude with the play and fall of light is superbly illustrated in ‘Spring Morning, Campden Hill’ (1940). It is the unique emotional quality of these images that makes Newton so memorable a painter, his distinctive combination of quietude and imminence. Later he wrote: ‘I felt I had to try to create something in every picture I painted, a mood, a mental atmosphere, a sentiment.’ In his best work, he achieves this almost effortlessly while evoking the physical reality of a particular place. I also loved the small panel paintings ‘Trees against an Evening Sky’ and ‘Canal Scene, Kentish Town’. What a treat.

I didn’t really know the work of Bertram Nichols (1883–1974), so the sense of discovery enhanced my enjoyment of his subtly abstracted, classical landscapes on roughly textured canvas. He reminds me a little of another old favourite, the theatrical and architectural painter James Pryde. Nichols is adept at transparent fading colour and simplified design, long shadows and subdued tones. Add to these two masters a group of typical Joseph Southall sea-and-shore subjects, a magnificently rendered Laura Knight drawing, Edward Bawden watercolours and fine things by Randolph Schwabe and Stanley Roy Badmin. There’s also a clutch of idiosyncratic classical figure compositions by Victor Moody (1896–1990), an artist rarely seen these days. Major paintings by John Armstrong and Richard Eurich reflect the consistently high quality of this exhibition.

Another underrated artist to be featured here is Gilbert Spencer (1892–1979), Stanley’s younger brother, and all too often overlooked for that very reason. But Stanley was well aware of his sibling’s talents and was happy to admit that Gilbert was a better landscape painter than he himself was. Just how good can be seen from the substantial achievement of ‘Farmyard’ (c.1950), while his individual approach to figure painting — very different from his brother’s style — is evidenced in the vast ‘Village Flower Show’ (1933–4).

Meanwhile, upstairs is a disquieting exhibition of the late etchings of John Copley (1875–1950): tough, vigorous, unusual, proposing a deeply quirky realism and mordant humour that nicely counterpoints the paintings below. All in all, a visit to the Fine Art Society is a must.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Arts, Arts review, Exhibitions, French drawings, Modern realism, National gallery of scotland, Painting, Poussin, Seurat