The Beauty is in the Detail

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, The British Museum

 The title of the British Museum’s latest exhibition is rather more flamboyant than its contents. Rather than ravishing shiny metals, Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns is a subtler affair.

Self-portrait by Hendrik Goltzius

Self-portrait by Hendrik Goltzius

The gold and silver in the title actually refers to the metalpoint technique, which the exhibition is dedicated to surveying. The technique involves using a metal stylus on an abrasive preparation so that traces of the metal are left on the surface. The most common metal is silver, but lead and gold may also be used. Metalpoint is ideal for creating extremely precise lines, resulting in exquisitely detailed drawings.

So whilst Drawings in Silver and Gold may not be an exhibition of gold and silver show-stoppers, it nevertheless provides a unique opportunity. For the British Museum have really dug out some treasures from their print room. Not only are there five stunning Leanardo drawings on display, visitors are also treated to beautiful works by Raphael, as well as lesser known masters of the technique, such as Rogier van der Weydan, Hendrik Goltzius and, from the 20th century, Otto Dix.

Drawing in Silver and Gold highlights the astonishing versatility of a technique that has primarily been used for preparatory studies. Although the majority of these drawings were not originally made for display purposes, the huge range of possibilities that the medium provides is extraordinary. Goltzius’s self-portrait is almost painterly for the number of different tones it contains, whilst Charles Holyroyd’s Nymphs By the Sea, proves that metalpoint is as a good as any medium at depicting the nude.

Whilst the fine detail of metalpoint makes it ideally suited to the small-scale, it is a surprisingly good medium for illustrating landscapes, as in Andrew MacCallum’s Forest of Scot Firs. In keeping with the medium however, MacCallum’s landscape is not a large rolling one, but small and intimate. Metalpoint has a unique ability to make landscape less monumental and more personal.

Visitors will also appreciate how the exhibition allows you to get up-close to the drawings, letting you really examine their minute details. Particular highlights are Albrecht Dürer’s Dog Resting in which he finely depicts the individual hairs from the animal’s coat, and Raphael’s Head of Virgin and Child. The latter is only a preparatory sketch, and the heads float without bodies on the page. But the Virgin’s downward glance still expresses volumes: simultaneously poignant, humble and pure.

Dog Resting by Albrecht Dürer

Dog Resting by Albrecht Dürer

No one would be surprised to find that drawings by some of the greatest artists since the Renaissance are often masterpieces in their own right. But hidden away in storerooms for preservation purposes means it is easy to forget them. With Drawings in Silver and Gold the British Museum has not only reminded us of their existence, but also highlighted how much satisfaction there is to be gained from studying their tiny details.

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns continues at the British Museum until 6 December.

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