STILL reeling from hearing Jonas Kaufmann sing Verdi’s Otello for a second time, I found myself at the opening of the first ever exhibition of portrait drawings to be staged by the National Portrait Gallery, round the corner from Covent Garden, off Trafalgar Square. This offers us the chance to come face to face with artists and sitters intimately.
The first to greet us is one of Holbein’s courtiers, John Godsalve (of whom more anon); but our more immediate attention is taken by the sole work of Leonardo da Vinci in this exhibition.
Not many musicians are willing to appear in the buff, full frontal, but Francesco Sinistre seemingly had no such compunction, posing for Leonardo around 1504-06; the Queen also owns the companion drawing of him seen from the rear. At least Kaufmann, who appeared as a centrefold pull-out in the programme book at the Royal Opera House, kept his clothes on.
Whether Leonardo’s is a portrait drawing or an academic nude is a moot point. As a study of a male nude, it is not difficult to understand why the Oxford don Maurice Bowra, caught on the riverbank of the nude bathing-place “Parson’s Pleasure” on the Isis, chose to wrap his towel round his head rather than his waist when a punt full of ladies went by, to avoid being recognised.
The exhibition suggests that drawings, unlike paintings, offer an immediacy and an intimacy, a compelling argument when we find Bernini’s brother, Luigi, about to answer an unheard question, reckoned to date to about 1640, or find ourselves beguiled by the Young Man Wearing a Cloak, attributed to François Clouet (c.1516-72), in whose sensitive eyes it is possible to sense the pain of the French Wars of Religion.
Royal Collection Trust © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2017Lady-in-waiting? Young Woman in a French Hood, possibly Mary Zouch, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c.1533Four dozen works on paper, from collections solely in England and Scotland, are brought together to invite us to encounter their individual artists. The catalogue details 50, and it is to be regretted that two (both in private collections) are absent. The Carracci Bearded Old Man and an important oil study of the head of a Congolese nobleman (1608/9) were both owned by the London dealer Jean-Luc Baroni until 2003.
The missing Annibale Carracci (c.1590) would have been a central part of the exhibition’s consideration of that extended family’s Bologna studio (alongside drawings from Chatsworth), but the Rubens constitutes the real gap, as the only work by the Flemish master planned for this exhibition.
It is an oil sketch for the great painting of The Adoration of the Magi in the Prado (Arts, 31 December 2004) and is dated 1608, a few years after Shakespeare wrote Othello, when Antonio Manuel, Marquis de Ne Vunda, led a delegation from King Álvaro II of Congo to Rome in the last year that Rubens lived in the papal city.
For his oil drawing, Rubens re-used the back of an account-book entry, a habit much used by the Carracci. Both missing drawings exhibit a looser fluidity that came with using oil rather than metal-point or graphite.
One of the more sickening life drawings on show is that of a condemned man viewed from behind. His hands are bound in Pisanello’s graphic of 1434-38 (Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland), as he is led off to execution. Although it may be a studio re-creation of an all too familiar scene in the Verona of the day, we know that Pisanello sketched criminals on the gibbet, fascinated by the contortions of the legs in a death spasm (Arts, 30 November 2001). This is one of the first “life” drawings in an exhibition that runs from the 14th century to the Baroque.
Two of the drawings have drawings on their reverse, and it is to be regretted that the NPG has not mounted them so that we can see both sides. The Benozzo Gozzoli (Boy with Curly Hair, Windsor Castle, Royal Library, 12811) is a sensitive study associated with the artist’s most famous Florentine cycle of the Epiphany procession in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, which appears on every mantelpiece on greeting cards at Christmas. On the back of it appear four seated saints.
The other double-sided work is by Domenico Beccafumi (c.1525), in which the Sienese artist uses a series of parallel black-chalk lines, enlivened by red chalk. From this, his face emerges with a distinctive tuft of hair at his forelock. The sideways glance gives it away as a self-portrait. Unrelated figures and dolphins appear on its reverse.
For many, the highpoint of the show will be to see the world of Wolf Hall unveiled for us in eight portraits of Tudor courtiers by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497/98- 1543) from the Royal Collection. One wall alone features St Thomas More’s only son (c.1526/7), Sir Ralph Sadler, and, it is presumed, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Jane Seymour, Mary Zouch.
The portrait of the Norfolk landowner Sir John Godsalve (c.1532), Clerk of the King’s Signet from 1531, is unusual in the so-called Windsor Series of portraits for its highly finished state with a blue background. Black, white, and coloured chalks are all brought into play with watercolour and body colour in a bravura display. Little wonder that Holbein retained it for himself.
“The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” is at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2, until 22 October. Phone 020 7306 0055. www.npg.org.uk