22nd November – 15th March 2020
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing marks the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death and is the largest-ever Leonardo exhibition in Scotland. It’s a rare chance to view 80 drawings on paper from the Renaissance master.
In February 2019, 144 of Leonardo’s drawings from the Royal Collection went on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions at museums and galleries across the UK (including Glasgow). The works returned to London for a summer exhibition at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace before coming to The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh. Many works are on display here in Scotland for the first time, with only one drawing previously shown in the Glasgow exhibition.
Over 550 sheets of drawings were initially bound together following the artist’s death. The album entered the Royal Collection during the reign of Charles II and remains the largest collection of Leonardo drawings.
As you might expect on entering an exhibition of drawings, nothing jumps out and grabs you from a distance. You have to get up close, almost nose-to-nose with the artworks as if Leonardo himself is pulling you closer to whisper his thoughts and observations. In doing so, you are rewarded with gems such as his thumbprint and pricked holes (for making a template) in The cardiovascular system and principal organs of a woman (c.1509–10). Also on display are artist materials and tools that Leonardo would have used – from metal point to charcoal, ink and watercolour.
Leonardo was seldom able to complete projects, sometimes due to circumstances beyond his control. However, his passion for mastering the universal laws of nature is fully understood through this collection. Painting, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany – all areas of Leonardo’s interests are represented and connected here. Leonardo was an accomplished planner, and it is in his drawings that we get an insight into this intensely creative and curious mind. In The bones and muscles of a bird’s wing (c1512 – 13), we can see how this study influenced his plans to design a flying machine. We can also see how the geographical detail in his landscape studies was centuries ahead of its time.
Leonardo believed an image could convey knowledge more accurately and concisely than words, yet few of his drawings were intended for others to see. They were more like lab tests, allowing him to work out his ideas quickly on paper. His notes are designed to complement the visuals and explain what could not be shown as an image and vice-versa. Leonardo believed that his most significant achievements would survive only through his drawings and manuscripts.
Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps the most well-known figure in art history, yet his ground-breaking anatomical work was never published. Although you might recognise Leonardo’s hand in the fine detail of drawings for The Last Supper and Leda and the Swan (now a lost painting), so much of the artist’s work was not fully realised or was destroyed. Preparatory studies of horses for a monument to Francesco Sforza, the late Duke of Milan, fell victim to the turbulence of politics and warfare that were a constant shadow over Leonardo’s career. There are several accounts of thwarted plans and abandoned projects, making the final section of the exhibition all the more poignant. His later drawings of cataclysmic storms sweeping away all matter continue this insight into Leonardo the human.
Because of the potential for damage from exposure to light, these very delicate works on paper can never be on permanent display and are kept in carefully controlled conditions in the Print Room at Windsor Castle. All the drawings can be viewed online at the Royal Collection Trust website.
The Queen’s Gallery,
Palace of Holyroodhouse,
The Royal Mile,
Edinburgh EH8 8DX
With thanks to Julie Boyne, author of this review.