Sunday, 9 October 2016

At the British Museum: French Portrait Drawings

Portrait of an old man; head and shoulders of a bearded old man turned slightly to r, looking to front, wearing a simple cap with curls of hair protruding beneath, full beard and moustache, wearing an open shirt Black and red chalk, with blue-grey wash
French Portrait Drawings: From Clouet to Courbet British Museum to 29 January, free

This exquisite exhibition shows the evolution of portrait drawing in France, but it's also about the development of the British Museum's collection. It shows some smart recent acquisitions, and some obscure drawings that deserve more attention.

The British Museum's collection of drawings is arguably the greatest in the world, but its backbone is a handful of old private collections whose idiosyncrasies persist. The Italian old masters are broad and deep, but other schools are more patchy. They have a wonderful group of Watteau drawings, but other French artists were collected inconsistently. A database search reveals just three drawings by the prolific draughtsman Jacques-Louis David, and their first Vouet was acquired just last year. Many fine drawings in this show have been acquired quite recently, including a superb Isabey (2007) and Labadye (2001). All the recent acquisitions were excellent choices. I was also surprised by how many superb drawings I'd never seen or heard of, like the wonderful image illustrated above, attributed to Pierre Biard II on the basis of the inscription. More information on the attribution can be found on the BM's catalogue entry.

Neil Jeffares complains of the lack of Louis XV drawings, and of great draughtsmen who are unrepresented. I do not recognise that problem. An exhibition of French portrait drawings shouldn't be a microcosm of the development of drawing in France. More balanced representation of French draughtsmanship would have meant some combination of a larger show, a more diffuse theme or less representation of recently acquired nineteenth century drawings. I thought the show varied and interesting, and its theme is coherent. It asks what makes a portrait drawing different from a figure study. One drawing is of hands, but it is clearly intended as a portrait. A Watteau drawing was used for a figure in one of his pictures at the Wallace Collection, but it is such a distinct character that it clearly qualifies as a portrait drawing. Some portrait drawings are made as cheaper versions of painted portraits, but others are more personal and intimate. I thought the drawing attributed to Perroneau weak, and there were four too many Carmontelles for my taste, but the overall quality and interest was outstanding.

In other words, there is more to this show than just an assemblage of stuff from the vaults, and that is why a catalogue would have been so welcome. I share Neil Jeffares's lament at its absence. Evidence from second hand bookshops is that cheap little catalogues used to be produced regularly for small museum shows, but today there are either grand glossy books or else nothing at all. A catalogue need not be a definitive scholarly account, but reproductions of the drawings with some background information would have been welcome. I surmise that the biggest barrier is bureaucratic rather than financial, and the internal approvals needed are now too onerous. Helpfully the wall text is available online.

The BM bureaucracy has treated Prints & Drawings brutally. It has become much less accessible since its opening hours were curtailed and walk-in visits banned. I went to see some German drawings when I visited the exhibition, and I have never seen the print room so quiet. For much of the time there were no other visitors, and only a couple of other people visited the morning I was there. It used to be possible to request drawings as you go along, but now everything must be ordered in advance, reducing flexibility and militating against serendipity. I'd booked a full day, but left at lunchtime as I didn't dare try to request anything else. It is an absolute scandal that such a great collection has become so inaccessible and is so little used. The sight of the study room filled with visitors ranging from wizened scholars classifying the Carracci to casual visitors wanting to see Dürer's Rhinoceros was heartwarming, and the contrast with the emptiness last week was just tragic. It's time to resurrect the old proposal to move the entire department to the National Gallery, whose collection it complements. The Prints & Drawings department would be better loved, it would add impetus to acquire drawings related to the NG's paintings, and it would encourage better integration of graphic art into NG exhibitions. It was absurd that their Veronese exhibition didn't include any drawings. The emptiness of the study room shows that something must be done differently.