Sunday, 1 April 2012

Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci

We are part of an orderly and polite queue in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. We've been here for about half an hour shuffling forward very slowly towards the door to the print room. It feel like an achievement just to have got here having got up early, travelled by bus from Hackney to Euston Station, collected the train tickets out of a machine and then woolfed down some breakfast, followed by a train ride of more than two hours when we read the Guardian newspaper.

Birmingham isn't the easiest city to navigate as a pedestrian since it seems to have be designed solely for the comfort of car drivers. With a few false starts and meanderings we managed to reach the Art Gallery, which is in an impressive Victorian building, to see Ten Drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection: an exhibition to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee 2012. And the reason for the rush was that the exhibition was closing the following day and moving on to Bristol.

I was amused that we were queuing behind a family of two parents plus two teenage girls. One of these girls seemed to be verging on adulthood, was good natured and seemed interested in where she was, unlike her sister who was bored with everything apart from her hair.

Since the exhibits were quite small they were displayed in the print room which is self contained with air conditioning and subdued lighting. I felt a buzz of excitement, on entering the room, to be able at last to study the drawings in spite of the sighing and hair tossing that was going on immediately in front of us.

I found it astonishing that I was looking at drawings which had been made roughly 500 years ago and that they were in such good condition. One reason for this is that the paper they are drawn on is made from rags unlike a lot of the paper we use today which is made from trees. So that was lesson number one: use good quality materials which are easier to conserve. Not that I expect any of my drawings to last as long as 500 years.

I was also a bit pop-eyed at the acute level of observation and detail in these drawings and the tiny marks Leonardo used to create them. I imagine he must have used a magnifying glass to see what he was doing, either that or he had exceptional eye sight. While I have seen some of Leonardo's portraits, like the Mona Lisa in Paris and depictions of biblical stories like the version of the Virgin of the Rocks that hangs in the National Gallery I am less aware of his designs for military hardware, cartography and studies of the human anatomy completed at a time when dissecting bodies was illegal. Examples of all of these were on display.

Lesson number two was that I noticed that on more than one of the images Leonardo used a technique of drawing with pen and ink over black chalk on coloured paper. I'm thinking of borrowing this technique but I'll have to develop a level of patience I've never practiced before when creating artwork if I want to achieve anything worthwhile.

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