I drifted into the world of drawings and paintings through a long abandoned ambition to become an artist. Living with works of art has become a substitute for making them. My ambition died at an early age after seeing a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper which filled me with a depressing sense of inadequacy but also with a life-long respect for Leonardo. Last week, a visitor to the Print Room told me that he could never warm to the works of Raphael and Michelangelo on account of the veil of celebrity that stops us from seeing them. I know what he means but can’t share his response. Nothing can get in the way of the sense of awe that I felt for the first time many years ago on seeing drawings by these artists and it never dims although I now see them several times a week in the Ashmolean. I can’t rationalise this and don’t think it is worth trying.
Most of those who collect drawings, including curators and dealers, are probably artists at heart. This thought is inspired by a sketchbook of notes and drawings by James Byam Shaw that lies beside me as I write. Covered in hand-printed Venetian paper, it records the paintings and drawings seen by him between 22 July and 19 August 1932 as he made his way through northern France and Switzerland to Provence. The book begins in Reims where some works are briefly listed and continues with longer stops in Nancy and Strasbourg, a quick visit to Colmar, a week in Basel (where he made extensive notes on German drawings) and ends in Avignon after visits to the museums of Besançon, Dijon, Beaune, Lyon, Grenoble and Valence. Scattered among the lists are neat, fluent sketches of works of art, drawn with a sharp grey pencil, sometimes with notes on the colour and the attribution. The works he lists range widely but those he drew tend to be from fifteenth-century Italy and seventeenth-century Holland where problems of attribution were as common then as they are now.
I met Jim in Christ Church in 1973 when his catalogue of the drawings was in its final stages. Working with him was a welcome change after three years spent in libraries. He reminded me of the importance of looking at a work of art and leaving the written sources to later, a lesson that is sometimes ignored by academics who often come to artists back to front and occasionally give the art short shrift. Unlike many art historians nowadays, he was not interested in theory and methodology – and nor am I – but was fascinated by the process of making art. Jim had little patience for those who never strayed beyond their speciality and encouraged me to look at everything. Working in Christ Church was a timely antidote to my own rather narrow interest at the time in the work of nineteenth-century French academic artists.
I had become interested some years earlier in two or three generations of French artists – Delaroche, Gérôme, Cabanel, Delaunay e tutti quanti, – through reading about them in L’Artiste and the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. The difference between the history of nineteenth-century art as it was written at the time and as it was written in the century that followed was a revelation. It would have been easy to have written about these artists from the sources without much knowledge of their art but my chief desire was to see the art itself. Finding this, however, turned out to be a slow process. A tour of the French provinces in 1969 brought in a poor harvest at a time when most of the paintings by these artists had been consigned to attics and basements and when curators with few exceptions – Sèvres, Le Mans, Tours and Bordeaux are recalled with lasting gratitude – were unhelpful and discouraging. The memory of being chased out of the museum in Dijon and ordered not to come back after asking if I might see a painting by Bouguereau still stirs some ashes of bewilderment and resentment. How much has changed! The nineteenth-century has been restored to a place of honour in museums from Rouen to Grenoble and attitudes to young students in the wonderful print rooms of provincial France have altered beyond belief.
By the early 1970s, the rediscovery of the French nineteenth century was well under way. Drawings by these artists were steadily reappearing in the Paris shops: Paul Prouté and the Galerie du Fleuve in the rue de Seine, Jacques Fischer and Chantal Kiener in the rue de Verneuil and Patrick Roger-Binet in the rue Saint-Honoré became welcoming ports of call for anyone searching for drawings by the so-called Salon artists. Neoclassical drawings came out of the shadows with exhibitions in London at Heim and Colnaghi’s in 1975 and Hazlitt, Gooden and Fox’s memorable annual exhibitions of nineteenth century French drawings began in the following year. In the French museums, Jacques Foucart, Geneviève Lacambre and their colleagues began to encourage a policy of acquisitions that brought a wealth of petits maîtres to the provinces. American art historians led by Albert Boime began to bring out weighty volumes and American collectors entered the scene with typical flair.
Every print room has evolved through a process of rediscovery. Bouguereau and his contemporaries now take their place alongside the Mannerists, the Bolognese and the artists of the Rococo all of whom were at one time knocked down only to be put up again when fashion changed. The exhibition of seventy-one drawings that opened in the Ashmolean on 25 May is set out as a history of the art of drawing from Dürer to David Hockney by way of Raphael, Michelangelo, Guercino, Tiepolo, Watteau, Turner, Friedrich, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne and many others. But there are inevitably huge gaps. In reality, the exhibition of drawings from the collection celebrates the changing tastes of those who have created the modern Print Room. It begins in the age of Sir Thomas Lawrence, changes abruptly with the arrival of John Ruskin and moves into a heroic period with the appointment of K. T. Parker to the keepership in 1934. It is a tribute to Parker’s achievement that one third of the drawings in the exhibition were acquired during his keepership. Like Byam Shaw, from whom he bought many drawings, he had a keen eye, generous tastes and an artist’s innate sense of quality.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford