At its annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries in May, the Royal Society of British Artists held a debate on the motion ‘This house believes that a found object cannot be a work of art’. The motion’s obvious subtext was that since Duchamp’s snow shovel the ‘found object’ has been digging away at the foundations of traditional hand-made art, with potentially catastrophic consequences. A team of speakers, including Julian Spalding (author of The Eclipse of Art), made impassioned speeches in the motion’s favour, and even those against seemed so half-hearted that Peregrine Worsthorne was moved to inquire from the floor: ‘Is there an argument here?’
If there is, it’s not one the found object seems to be winning to judge from the recent resurgence of interest in the fount and origin of all hand-made art: drawing. Admittedly not all drawing these days is on paper: Grayson Perry won last year’s Turner Prize by drawing on pots. But if there’s health in diversity, drawing can never have been fitter. On the one hand we have the Prince of Wales’s Drawing Studio upholding the values of traditional draughtsmanship, and on the other the Pizza Express Prospects 2004 Drawing Prize, selecting finalists such as Phil Coy, who redraws urban borders with potted marguerites. Between the two, we have the popular Campaign for Drawing — launched by Julian Spalding as master of Ruskin’s Guild of St George — promising in its fifth triumphant year to get the British public drawing at a thousand venues across the country, come its annual Big Draw in October. And now the Royal Academy — whose basement Schools once seemed the last bastion of drawing tradition — has, at the urging of Allen Jones and David Hockney, made drawing the focus of this year’s Summer Exhibition.
Have we come full circle? No, but we’ve come a long way since the nadir of the 1960s when drawing was dropped from the National Diploma in Design in pursuit of inspiration without perspiration. True, many of the drawings now on show in Galleries V and VI of Burlington House would not have passed muster in the basement 50 years ago. There are too few nudes to please traditionalists, and for landscape you’d be better off visiting Art Space Gallery’s exhibition Visions of London (until 26 June) or Eric Rimmington’s semi-miraculous Mildmay drawings in the Imperial War Museum’s new Open Secret display (until 15 August).
Yet it’s in Galleries V and VI that people linger. What is it about drawing that draws us in? A drawing can be small, it can be monochrome, it can be spidery and faint, but it speaks to us — like the unaccompanied human voice — with immediacy, clarity and transparent honesty. As Julian Spalding pointed out in his debate speech, artists ‘can be Rembrandt in their dreams, but as soon as they make their first mark on paper they are no one but themselves’. To draw, for an artist, is to take a line for a walk along a tightrope — enough on its own to hold the viewer’s attention, if only in anticipation of a fall.
Not all the drawings in this display are by artists. Jones and Hockney have taken another leaf from the Campaign for Drawing’s book by including an intriguing array of doodles by composers, designers, scientists, mathematicians, medical men, structural engineers and strategists, from Harrison Birtwistle’s Klee-like explorations of musical ideas to the battle lines drawn by Sir Clive Woodward for the 2004 England v. Italy Six Nations rugby game. Though not professional artists, many contributors are practised drawers. Heart surgeon Francis Wells is even shown on video nonchalantly dipping a forceps into a patient’s chest so as to illustrate a point in blood to watching students. Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp would have been so plucky.
Lying as they do outside the self-referential definition of art as done by artists, these working sketches can be judged purely on their own terms. On those terms, they stand up remarkably well. Though few of us could name the subject of a Francis Wells ink drawing as ‘the repair of the perimembranous-ventricular septal defect’, its sheer graphic assurance convinces us that it’s ‘of’ something, leaving Antony Gormley’s inky abstractions looking aimless by comparison. The non-artists’ drawings are also refreshingly free of ‘style’, that sclerosis which can creep up on artists when inspiration wanes. Beside the immediacy of designer Alexander McQueen’s pencilled jottings of a model turning on her heel in one of his dresses, Allen Jones’s tango dancers look stylised and stiff. All the more credit to Jones for persuading McQueen to show.
Of course, a drawing can be both more and less than a working sketch. It can be a doodle — as in Tom Phillips’s amusing collection of memoranda defaced in the cause of administrative duty — or a means of constructing witty castles in the air, à la Chris Orr. It can be an introvert’s exploration of the subconscious — like Ross Blake’s obsessive ‘Death Chamber No. 31’ — or an extrovert’s celebration of the outside world, like Anthony Eyton’s vivid sketch of ‘Manikins, West 8th Street, New York’. Best, and most difficult of all, it can be a way of communicating a moment of experience.
Here, unfortunately, is where the weaknesses in contemporary drawing show up. As far as capturing figures in motion goes, only John Dewe Mathews in ‘Coup de Feu at Odette’s Restaurant’ appears able to stand the heat in the kitchen. And there’s little evidence of that tenderness of touch that marks out great drawings such as Rembrandt’s sketch of a child being taught to walk, voted by Hockney the best drawing ever made. The two artists to come closest are Norman Adams in a couple of watercolour drawings of religious subjects (more are on show at the Fine Art Society until 24 June), and Jane Dowling in a small ‘Drawing on the Oxford Tube’, which seems to crystallise a solitary traveller’s self-absorption from a fug of pencillings. It’s no accident that both are old drawing hands.
The young figurative artist Stuart Pearson Wright — an alumnus of the Prince of Wales’s Drawing Studio — recently complained that good draughtsmanship is now an ‘affliction’. We all know that facility can be facile when it has nothing to say; then it merely peels the conceptual chestnut about the Emperor’s new clothes and hands us the clothes without the Emperor. But in order not just to revive but revivify drawing, artists need to get that old facility back. It’s no good Tracey Emin telling David Bowie in a 1997 interview that she gave up trying to be a ‘traditional-type artist’ because she was ‘crap at it’, when becoming less crap is always an option.
Actions, not words. Julian Spalding’s Campaign for Drawing has done his cause immeasurably more good than his prophecies of doom in The Eclipse of Art. At the end of the RBA debate, the critic Tom Lubbock mischievously suggested that the motion might have been better worded: ‘Is the whole world going to hell in a handcart?’ If it is, it’s nice to know there’ll be pencils on board.
The Summer Exhibition is at the Royal Academy until 16 August. A week of exhibitions of Master Drawings will be held in London from 3 to 9 July (www.masterdrawingsinlondon.co.uk).