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Treasures from the Ashmolean Museum Display the Best of British Drawing

William Blake (British, 1757–1827) The Baptism of Christ, ca. 1803, Pen and black ink and watercolour over indications in graphite on paper  31.3 × 34.8 cm (12 5/16 × 13 11/16 in.) frame: 72.5 × 55 × 2.3 cm (28 9/16 × 21 5/8 × 7/8 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum
July 1 – September 17, 2017
Princeton University Art Museum
Princeton, New Jersey


A Brexit of a different order is taking place in Princeton, New Jersey this summer, where a loan exhibition of treasured drawings from Oxford’s University’s Ashmolean Museum is on view through September 17th. Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum offers over a hundred drawings and works on paper from the past 300 years. The show was selected by Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art at the Ashmolean Museum and organized by Laura M. Giles, Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean began as a modest cabinet of curiosities and portrait gallery and now houses a collection of works on paper that tops ten thousand. Because of the fragile and delicate nature of paper and materials applied to it, traveling shows of this kind are rarely possible. That said, the sheer quality of drawings on display in this exhibition makes it one of the season’s best page-turners, because if any nation should be able to claim paper as a material, it is Great Britain, that land of illustrious writers and the letters they delivered. The British have done as much as any nation to decorate the letter, and many of the images in the exhibition seem to be in service of the word. It is the attraction to the act of drawing as a service to artists that has truly made this collection possible. Augmented in 1843 by the acquisition of Sir Thomas Lawrence’s cache of over a hundred Italian Renaissance drawings by Michelangelo and Raphael in 1843, artist, critic and teacher John Ruskin’s gift of thirty-eight drawings by J.M.W.Turner in 1861 further buttressed this stellar compendium.

The exhibition is arranged somewhat loosely in chronological order, unfolding in four sections or chapters, beginning from the earliest “likenesses” (portraits and the figure), to topographical works (landscapes on both home soil and abroad), to the heart of the exhibitionthe looking back-in-time-travel of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood–and finally climaxing with the 20thcentury, a century divided by the conflict of two World Wars and their aftermath. Artists included in the exhibition range from the well knownSir Joshua Reynolds, William Blake, John Ruskin, Joseph Mallord William Turner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, David Hockney, and Frank Auerbach–to lesser-known figures supported by outstanding individual works.

The array of materials encompass both the exotic, from bistre (brown washes made of the burnt soot of wood), bodycolor (gouache), and mud, to the more conventional charcoal, graphite, ink, and watercolor. The show attempts to expand upon the very purpose of drawing as an act, encompassing examples of quick idea sketches, working studies, and drawings as standalone works of art. In that regard, we are treated to the evolution of watercolor as a material, which moves from a subsidiary rolethin layers of color resulting in tinted drawingsto a starring role during “The Golden Age of Watercolor” from mid-18th century to mid-19th century, represented by a stirring group of landscapes, cityscapes and narrative scenes. We should expect nothing less from J.M.W. Turner, Samuel Palmer, and John Sell Cotman, but it is the lesser known figures–Thomas Girtin, William Turner of Oxford, Albert Joseph Moore and Alfred William Hunt who cause us to squint our eyes even tighter as they push the possibilities of the material even further.

The show begins with Samuel Cooper’s black and white chalk “likeness” of Thomas Alcock at eighteen years of age, dating from about 1650. The sitter is seen in three-quarter view with wavy, tousled, shoulder-length hair and enough self-awareness–bordering on rock star attitude–to launch a different sort of British Invasion. Across from Thomas Alcock, we find Jonathan Richardson’s study of Dr. Richard Mead (dating circa1739) in graphite on vellum. The delicate handling of the material, with its lightness of touch, mirrors silver point, a type of drawing that sacrifices dark value for a clearly defined quality of line and was a preferred means of drawing for miniaturists. The sitter’s facial features are revealed with a subtle series of hatched lines whose short jittery, staccato strokes offer space for the admittance of light across the surface, but no definitive edges to the planes of the face. Dr. Mead’s hair billows up like two puffs of smoke that meet at the center of his forehead and evaporate.

Samuel Cooper (English, 1608–1672) Thomas Alcock, ca. 1650, Black chalk heightened with white on paper 17.7 × 11.3 cm (6 15/16 × 4 7/16 in.) frame: 60.4 × 45 × 2.4 cm (23 3/4 × 17 11/16 × 15/16 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

At the opposite end of the graphic spectrum is George Romney’s highly abstracted pen and-ink with bistre wash drawing of Lady Leaning on a Pedestal (1777-78). With its broad mark-making and saturated dark brown washes, the drawing almost looks as if it were burned on the paper surface rather than soaked into its fibers. Detail is sacrificed in the service of light and shadow for this compositional study in search of balance and harmony. The sitter’s face is rendered in calligraphic shorthand of dashes and a tall, skinny triangle for a nose. She leans against a pedestal near a balustrade that has the look of a study for a Motherwell Elegy to the Spanish Republic.

Stretching the idea of “likeness” even further, we find George Richmond’s “Boswood’s Thigh” and the Right Arm of Michelangelo’s David from 1827-28, where two versions–one in red chalk and one in graphite and brown in–of the contemporary model’s powerful, muscular left leg shares space with one of the most famous right arms in art history. David’s right arm is elevated to the scale of the model’s fleshy left thigh, and Richmond adds tension to the drawing with a sudden crop of the sculpture’s right hand at the bottom of the page. The distal phalanxes of the middle and ring fingers are missing, but what the digits sacrifice in length, they gain in mobility, as the fingers hint at a pair of legs in motion. 

The great 19th-century visionary William Blake’s watercolors make two appearances, each offering a different degree of “finish,” from 1803's richly detailed The Baptism of Christ, to the lyrical ink and graphite lines of The Deity from whom proceed the Nine Spheres (illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paradiso XXVIII) from nearly two decades later. In the illustration for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, God the Father peers down, passing judgment from behind a nine-tiered ring that forms a shield with its tip firmly planted in the ground. Pairs of figures anchor each ring like balanced weights on a scale as it ascends to the heavens. Seven spherical forms secure the center like rivets, with the red cross of the Knights Templar decorating the middlemost one. In The Baptism of Christ, the more highly finished of the two works, Blake celebrates his own baptism and conversion while depicting that of Jesus. Blake squeezes the last drops of water from his palette into the right hand of John the Baptist, who pours it over Christ, completing the sacrament. 

Topographical scenes take their foothold next with a series of watercolor landscapes both of the homeland and at the outer reaches of the tentacles of the British Empire. In many cases, the landscapes were a result of commissions sought to document foreign travel. With all due respect to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’s “heart” of the exhibition, it is this selection from the so-called “Great Age of Watercolor” that will have your heart racing and in need of anti-arrhythmic medication. To borrow a term from Pre-Raphaelites, this section of the show is filled with more than a few “stunners.”

In John Sell Cotman’s A Ruined House (from about 1807-10), a cross section of a teetering structure (oddly reminiscent of contemporary British artist Rachel Whiteread’s ghostly concrete casts of houses and apartments) is compositionally held in place by a coil of rope acting as a linear life preserver. Cotman uses the white of his paper to evoke sunlight, while his washes of watercolor swell and pinch at the edges of each painted form. The play of light across the damaged surface interrupts the grid of wood, mud, and stone, creating a sense of foreboding. In Thomas Girtin’s Dunnottar Castle in a Thunderstorm (circa 1794), an angular lightning strike seems to form a pathway solid enough to walk back up to the heavens on. The distant castle ruins were once both host and hiding place of the Honours of Scotland during Oliver Cromwell’s campaign. They sit directly under the source of the strike, while a storm-tossed sea rages off its rocky coast. Girtin died young at age 27, to which J.M.W. Turner remarked, “If Tom Girtin had lived, I would have starved.” These nine words act as a poetic tribute, one that should guarantee an eternity.

John Sell Cotman (British, 1782–1842) A Ruined House, ca. 1807–10, Watercolour over graphite on paper  32.7 × 26.1 cm (12 7/8 × 10 1/4 in.) frame: 60.4 × 45 × 2.4 cm (23 3/4 × 17 11/16 × 15/16 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Turner himself makes a bold entrance into the exhibition with his Inside View of the Hall of Christ Church, Oxford (1803-4). The watercolor, later used for an engraved illustration in the Oxford Almanack, presents a grand, sunlit hall with a group of portraits on the walls. We enter from the right, the space’s enormity revealed by the two diminutive figures behind a table on the far left. Turner has scratched back the paper’s surface to white, creating highlights that ring the hall like exploding fireworks that had me looking for flares and streamers. 

When it comes to Turner, scale doesn’t diminish impact. In the sublime Sunshine on the Tamar (circa 1813), a group of pigs in the foreground crash the party by foraging along the banks of the Tamar River, while the handle of Turner’s brush helps them till the soil. Above the river, a pulsating, white-hot sun hovers, awaiting its evening descent. In Sketch of Mackerel (circa 1835-40), three fresh mackerels shimmer off the paper’s surface as if they had been unwrapped on a kitchen counter. The fish, looking like the three lions of the crown, act as a reminder of both a dinner menu and a nation that once ruled the seas. 

Joseph Mallord William Turner (English, 1775–1851) Sketch of Mackerel, ca. 1835–40, Watercolour over graphite on Whatman Turkey Mill paper dated 1818  22.4 × 28.7 cm (8 13/16 × 11 5/16 in.) frame: 45 × 60.4 × 2.4 cm (17 11/16 × 23 3/4 × 15/16 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

If Turner makes his marks in service of an emotional state, then Samuel Palmer’s densely rendered landscapes are the visual equivalent of letters and text. In Palmer’s radiant watercolor and bodycolor, The Prospect (1864-81), the story is supplied by the poetry of John Milton from a series begun late in Palmer’s life to illustrate Milton’s L’Allegro and Il Penseroso. In the foreground, a group of figures gather in the shade of a tree. Two seated young women listen intently as a man in a straw hat gestures out at the landscape while an ox pulls a farmer's plow. Light clings like lichen to the rocks and trees as rolling hills tumble their way back to an imaginary cluster of buildings inspired by both Palmer’s homeland and his travels. The sun-dappled valley and distant shoreline glisten with all the luminosity of a freshly varnished oil painting. 

John Ruskin’s misty, lakeside watercolor and gouache on gray paper of Lake Geneva, Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey (from either May-June 1849, or May 1, 1869), was made during one of the artist’s geological excursions in Switzerland. In Morning in Spring, Ruskin pays homage to his hero, the great barometric magician J.W.M. Turner. At the same time, Ruskin casts an eye to the “truth in nature” he preached to the Pre-Raphaelites. The sun rises behind a jagged mountain range on Lake Geneva, leaving the artist both in awe and in search of scientific measure as he struggles to harness his emotions in his quest for scientific fact.

John Ruskin (British, 1819–1900) Morning in Spring, with North-east Wind, at Vevey, May–June 1849, or 1 May 1869, Watercolour and bodycolour over graphite on pale grey wove paper 17.7 × 26.4 cm (6 15/16 × 10 3/8 in.) frame: 45 × 60.4 × 2.4 cm (17 11/16 × 23 3/4 × 15/16 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Ruskin’s Morning in Spring provides us with a bridge over an aesthetic divide and in the process, introduces us to the third chapter of the exhibition, where the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood has a chance to shine. The group was founded in 1848 by artists William Holman Hunt, Sir John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti as a counter to the classical aesthetics of the High Renaissance taught in the academies. If any art movement was born to be in service of the word it is the Pre-Raphaelites, a group that not only looked back in time to art before Raphael and his contemporaries, but off their sheets of paper and directly onto the wall in admiration of the frescoes of the “primitive” painters of the early Renaissance. In fact, many of the works in this section feel freeze-dried, as if they should come with the instructions “just add watercolor.” 

Dante now not only inspires with his words–as was the case with William Blake–but with his life, in his namesake Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Dante Drawing an Angel on the Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853). Here a mournful, genuflecting Dante is so distraught and self-absorbed in his thoughts that he ignores guests to his studio while painting an angel on the anniversary of Beatrice’s passing.

In Alfred William Hunt’s watercolor A November Rainbow-Dolwyddelan Valley 11 November 1866, 1 PM, (1866), a hooded traveler walks along a path, seemingly unaware of the meteorological event of a double rainbow taking place over his right shoulder. Hunt seeks to capture the specifics of this fleeting phenomenon while at the same time working in painstakingly slow detail. He uses tiny stippled marks, or dots of layered color, in concert with a spiderweb of thin scratches into his paper to create the pattern and texture of the rocks and foliage, one that could just as easily imply the cracks on a frescoed wall. 

The final chapter for the exhibition is written by the historical events of the 20th century, in particular World War I and World War II and their aftermath. In Eric Henri Kennington’s chalk drawing on gray paper of William Rothstein from 1917, the official war artist renders a helmeted, battle-ready British soldier in a veil of white chalk that draws a curtain of light down over the sitter’s glasses. This simple act of denying direct eye contact and implying self-reflection creates an emotional distance between subject and viewer. We truly cannot know what horrors this man has seen during his time on the Western Front. In David Bomberg’s Evening in the City of London, 1944, a clarion call goes out across the rooftops of London from the bell tower of St. Mary-le-Bow to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The smoldering charcoal drawing has us searching for markers of humanity still standing among the ruins; the wide black lines looking like a scaffold made of charred, recumbent bones. 

David Bomberg (English, 1890 - 1957) Evening in the City of London, 1944, Charcoal on paper  46.4 × 59 cm (18 1/4 × 23 1/4 in.) frame: 66.6 × 87 × 2.8 cm (26 1/4 × 34 1/4 × 1 1/8 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford David Bomberg  copyright 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / DACS, London

The show closes on balance with three portrait “likenesses” by three leaders of contemporary British art: Frank Auerbach, David Hockney, and Tom Phillips. In Head of Julia from 1985-86, Auerbach offers a charcoal drawing of his wife and artist, Julia Wolstenhome, made on two pieces of paper abutted together like gray cinder blocks. Auerbach searches through a foggy haze of charcoal using his eraser and sandpaper like a flashlight, the paper so violently erased and scratched at you are left wondering if the sitter was desperately trapped inside the picture plane.

Tom Phillips (English, born 1937) Salman Rushdie, 1993, Charcoal, pastel, black and red bodycolour, brown mud bound in Liquitex Matte medium on white paper  70 × 55 cm (27 9/16 × 21 5/8 in.) frame: 79.2 × 65.3 × 2.2 cm (31 3/16 × 25 11/16 × 7/8 in.) The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

David Hockney and Tom Phillips present portrait drawings of writers, albeit ones expressing far different emotions: love and hate. In Hockney’s marvelous pen and ink drawing Henry Writing, Lucca (1973), the artist’s line dances across the surface of the paper as he portrays the late curator and art critic Henry Geldzahler seated at a typewriter. Geldzahler’s speedy tangle of fingers evaporates into the page’s atmosphere as the typewriter keyboard morphs into cursive shorthand that ends with a lone, final heart-shaped key. In Phillips’ mixed media drawing from 1993, Salman Rushdie, the bespectacled author of the “Satanic Verses” gazes out at the viewer from behind a prison cell created from his own words, NOT TO SHUTUP/TO SING ON. The inscription taken from Rushdie’s poem, “6 March 1989,” gives the whole image the feel of a wanted poster. Rushdie’s enormous right ear seems to bend forward listening to his critics, as brown mud speckles the surface of the drawing, serving as a reminder of the mudslinging campaign conducted by the Ayatollah Khomeni and the fatwa issued on the same date that called for the author’s execution. The drawing is a not so subtle reminder to both the power of the image and the power of the word, a point made repeatedly throughout Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum. WM


David Ambrose

David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.

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