The British Museum – Drawing in silver and gold – Leonardo to Jasper Johns


10 September – 6 December 2015

Drawing in Silver and Gold is an exhibition at the British Museum bringing together some beautiful sketches by some of the most iconic names in the art world, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Albrecht Dührer, Hans Holbein the Elder, Rembrandt, William Holman Hunt and more. The metal point drawing technique is a process where the artist draws on a coated piece of paper or panel with a fine metal rod. It was first used by scribes for manuscripts in the medieval times. The metal stylus is usually made of silver although gold is also occasionally used. The preparation of the surface is very time consuming and so, often done by the artist’s student. To prepare the paper, water is added to ground up animal bones then mixed with thin glue made of animal skin. The mixture is then brushed onto the surface which allows the metal stylus to mark the surface. Dyes can also be added to create colour on the surface, for example clay was used to create a dark red colour and raw sienna and indigo were popular.

An artist who uses colour in several of his works is Fra Filippo Lippi in his ‘Standing Woman’ (c.1460-1469) which is a study of the Virgin Mary mourning, made for a lost or incomplete work. It is a good example of how highlights (created with chalk) can be used to give the figure sculpted dimension. By the same artist ‘Studies of Standing and Seated Men’, done on purple prepared paper also uses highlights and shading to give depth and movement, especially to the clothes.

Metal point was used to practise part of a painting that is tricky to do, such as the hands and faces. We can see this in Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio’s (1467-1516) who was a student of Leonardo Da Vinci, ‘Study of the Drapery for the Risen Christ’ (c.1491). In this work he is practising the intricate folds and lighting on the drapery of Christ.

Some of the stands out works of the exhibition include the ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’ (c.1430-40) by the Circle of Jan Van Eyck which is a silverpoint in cream prepared paper. Amazing detailed is achieved with a combination of dashes, dots and strokes to create lots of texture. There are also multiple works by Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1524) a standout being ‘Portrait of a Woman wearing a Headdress’ (c.1508-10) which is a sketch used in further drawings and paintings. The soft unfocused lines are in contrast with the detail and clarity in the facial features which shows the range of effects that can be created with metal point. Albrecht Dührer (1471-1528) also has several works exhibited including ‘Head of a Woman’ (c.1505-7) which is very reminiscent of Filippo Lippi’s style in the strong colour of the prepared paper and the use of highlighting through hatching. Dührer developed his technique so later in life his works showed more subtlety and restraint. Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) is also exhibited although it is believed that he only used metal point during a trip to the Netherlands. They include simple sketches of faces and places he saw among the way, including ‘Five Studies of Heads’ (c.1633) and also ‘The Landscape with Two Farms’ (c.1633). These simple sketches beautifully capture a scene and show how effective this medium can be.

Lastly the exhibition looks at the revival of metal point with notably larger and often clumsier looking works. Otto Dix (1891-1969) in his work ‘Old Woman’ (c.1932) uses rough etching to create an emotionally driven piece. However the large work seems to have lost the refined detail of earlier examples of metal point. However we can see despite these stylistic changes the medium is still allowing harsh and soft lines which are precise and detailed whilst also being faint and sketchy. The exhibition ends with Bruce Nauman’s hands sketch hung directly next to Leonardo’s which further highlights the key differences and similarities in the way this traditional use of metal point has changed over 600 years.

Overall, the exhibition, in a small room near the top of the museum invites close inspection and analysis of some of the most acclaimed artists in the worlds work. The layout clearly walks you through the progression of the technique showing amazing artists through time taking on the medium and finally ending with a work from 2013, showcasing how this amazing traditional medium is still successfully being used.

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