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Fine lines

Drawings are often valued as an artist’s first thoughts, the most direct and intimate expression of his or her response to a subject.

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

19 February 2011

12:00 AM

Drawings are often valued as an artist’s first thoughts, the most direct and intimate expression of his or her response to a subject.

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 20th-century 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 mark-making, 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 down- river — the pen-and-ink compositional study for this is here, with a pencil head. Also a couple of Siddal’s own pictures: technically inept but wonderfully moody.

Ruskin was a great supporter of PRB beliefs, and was particularly drawn himself to the close observation of nature, as witnessed by his own drawings, such as the exquisite study of ivy against a swirling ground like a waterfall. William Henry Hunt is typically represented by a birds’ nest, surrounded by apple blossom and primroses.

The botanical school really gets going here, with a couple of fervent works by Frederick Sandys, again of ivy. John Brett’s 1862 watercolour of a gentian is a highpoint of this kind of nature study. I like his sister Rosa’s intense landscapes (though not her sentimental bunnies). From nature back to people with a series of portraits of the leading protagonists: I especially enjoyed Rossetti’s well-inked caricatures of his friends, complete with speech bubbles. ‘Slosh!’ says Millais, in shorthand for Sir Sloshua Reynolds, meaning bad art or bad ideas, and Hunt answers ‘Of course!’

The coloured chalk portraits of Fanny Cornforth show what Rossetti could do when he put his mind to highly worked drawing, while his sketch of himself sitting for Lizzie Siddal, and his caricature of his sister in a tantrum smashing things, are further evidence of his mordant wit and innate poetry.

Then there’s a whole section on stained glass and another on applied art. I had prepared for the stained glass by dropping in at the impressive cathedral (1715) in High Town, where there are four beautiful windows by Birmingham-born Burne-Jones. Back in the exhibition there were both studies and glass panels on show. And still the show goes on, through minor figures like Simeon Solomon and Frederic George Stephens, to major paintings such as ‘The Last of England’ and ‘The Finding of the Saviour’. An extraordinary array of work.

Trips out of London have the unfortunate habit of making one dissatisfied with galleries in the metropolis. There seems to be so much more space in provincial museums, the staff are courteous and friendly, and there are none of those irritable crowds of the elbowing leisured classes fighting for their 20 seconds in front of a masterpiece.

In the Gas Hall of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, this large exhibition has been laid out with an almost prodigal spaciousness, which makes it a joy to visit. In fact, the Birmingham experience was much more like one of those treasured memories of visiting a grand palazzo abroad, where it is considered properly respectful as well as a mark of the highest civilisation to have space around your illustrious exhibits.

As a consequence, the viewers who were there when I visited took their time over examining these intricate drawings, seemed seriously interested in what they were looking at, and were unflustered by a press of people wanting to stand in their place. The audience contained a nice mix of young and old and the atmosphere was relaxed but intent. The whole trip for me was a real pleasure.

The exhibition, which travels to The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (17 June to 4 September), is accompanied by a book entitled Pre-Raphaelite Drawing by Colin Cruise (Thames &Hudson, £29.95 hardback, £19.95 paperback). It’s a clearly written and lavishly illustrated account, but no substitute for the first-hand experience of seeing these remarkable drawings. Book your travel to Birmingham now.

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