Following on from the Blog post I wrote last July ‘My search for Leonardo’, this post details a research visit to the Royal Collection Trust print room at Windsor Castle, as part of my research for my MRes dissertation.
Emerging from Windsor and Eton Central Station and the luxury shops which encompass the station I was immediately confronted with the imposing walls of Windsor Castle. Quickly side stepping to the Pass office to collect my security badge, I proceeded through the grand Henry VIII Gate and head beyond the round tower to the Royal Library and Print Rooms. These house the Royal Collection, one of the largest collections of art and art objects in the world. The collection could be said to have been pioneered by Charles I, who patronised the great 17th century Netherlandish artists (a period of art history which is enthusiastically studied in our department). Successive major contributors to the collection include George III, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; even our very own Elizabeth II has added various important works. Most recently the Royal Collection Trust has acquired Andy Warhol’s series of four colourful screenprints Reigning Queens: Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom (1985). Based on a photograph taken on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee in 1977, the series was acquired in celebration of the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee.
The reason for my visit to the print rooms, however, was to study the drawings of famed Renaissance masters Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. My dissertation considers these two Renaissance “giants” in terms of the nineteenth century notion of genius. I consider the drawings made by artists to be essential to understanding the inner workings of their minds. Are drawings are the closest we as art historians can come to the initial expression of an idea?
Having previously visited the Print Room for my undergraduate dissertation I was prepared, so with clean hands, soft mime-like gloves, pencil and paper at the ready I began with the Leonardo drawings. I absolutely love Leonardo as a draughtsman, his works are truly spectacular and I feel very lucky to have the chance to see some up close. Leonardo’s works, in my opinion, have a quality which no one else can quite match. They are remarkably detailed and have an ease about them which makes them fluid, seeming to move on the page. On studying Raphael drawings (selected for their comparative merits), it was clear that there is a distinct difference: his drawings appeared to be less fluid and more forced when compared to Leonardo drawings of similar subjects. This was most obvious when considering the drapery studies which both artists used to understand how cloth falls on the body.
The Royal Collection Trust has done a fantastic job of photographing the drawings of their collection, and they are all available to view online but it’s not quite like seeing the original. There is certainly nothing better than viewing the subject of your essay/dissertation. Seeing works first hand adds vital authority to your writing and emphasises your interest and dedication to your subject. First hand study also allows you to see the work in a different light and observe details which digital reproductions are unable to replicate.
On my first visit last year, my favourite drawing was Leonardo da Vinci’s A sprig of blackberry (Rubus fructicosus) (1505-10). This drawing caught my fancy for its pure simplicity. It is also a study which Leonardo must have drawn for his own amusement: blackberries do not appear in any final paintings so we can assume that this drawing was purely for his own pleasure and study practice.
My current favourite, after this second visit, is Leonardo da Vinci The drapery of the Virgin’s thigh (c.1515-17).
This drawing has come to be a favourite because in my search for this quantifiable measurement of “genius”, I was completely captured by this drawing. The way the physical mass of the leg is indicated by the folds of the drapery shows supreme talent.
There is certainly something to be said for the status of the visitor pass which gives one an edge over the general tourist. Not only was I able to gain access to the most prestigious collection in the country but I was also able to charm my way into the State Apartments and Queen Mary’s Doll House. Having saturated my eyes with drawings I was looking forward to a generally wander around the castle. However I stumbled across a vast number of the works which we studies as part of my undergraduate degree at Nottingham! From the works by Van Dyck and Rubens that Jeremy Wood introduced to us; to the likes of Holbein and Cranach which Gaby Neher teaches in the Renaissance Germany module. I spent the whole jaunt muttering all these facts about the paintings which have seeped into my long term memory.
Windsor Castle truly is a treasure trove for students to explore!
(I would like to extend my thanks to Carly Collier for all her help with the drawings and her provoking questions and comments with regards to my thesis.)
Charlotte Noakes-Robinson (BA 2010-2013; MRes 2013-)