Student Stories: The Drawing Year visit the Royal Collection, Windsor

March 31, 2016
Students on The Drawing Year enjoy special access to some of the UK’s finest private art collections, and have opportunities to draw in major London galleries out of hours. Recent visits have included early morning visits to the Delacroix, Rembrandt, and Veronese exhibitions at The National Gallery, the Bill Viola exhibition at Blain Southern, and exhibitions of drawings by Goya and Schiele at the Courtauld.  One of the highlights of the year is a study trip to Windsor Castle to draw from works in the Royal Collection. This unique collection includes around 80 portrait drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger and 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, including studies of anatomy, landscape, water and natural history. Drawing Year student Becky Brewis gives us a glimpse inside..

Windsor Castle Drawing Year

On Tuesday the Drawing Year went to Windsor Castle, where the Royal Collection of drawings and watercolours is housed. The collection is huge and was compiled over five centuries. One of its proudest boasts is its assemblage of Old Master drawings, and it was these we’d come to see. 

We were accompanied by Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings, who introduced works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Hans Holbein the Younger. The sight of so many drawings in one room was extraordinary – Martin apologised for overusing the word miraculous. He told us that one of his personal favourites in the collection is Leonardo’s drawing of a copse of trees, in red chalk on paper. It shimmers and the foliage turns in the breeze, each tree individuated. But it is also tiny and throwaway, sitting in one corner of a small sheet of paper on the reverse of which is another study. 

Leonardo, Copse of Trees                                            Leonardo, A Copse of Trees.  Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.                                                              

I had a go at drawing some figures from Michelangelo’s studies for the Last Judgement for the Sistine Chapel fresco. The figures are miniature but their gesture and expression is instantly readable. The marks that are there are so few that you feel you could blow them and the black chalk would curl into new arrangements and new scenes. It’s hard to know where to begin drawing from a drawing that is so economical. I mainly just stared. 

Sketches and studies for the Last Judgement by MichelangeloSketches and studies for the Last Judgement by Michelangelo. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.    

Drawing Year Windsor Castle

The room is small and designed for the study of drawings. The layout hasn’t changed since Prince Albert created it in the 1850s. The works were displayed on a central table and four Holbein portraits, sketches for paintings, stared out over the castle grounds: the clothing and jewellery of Thomas More’s daughters looking as freshly picked out as if Holbein had just left the room. Being able to get so close to the direct motion of the artist’s hand is one of the rewards of looking at drawings. The subtle differentiation between the colour of the paper and the colour of the Holbein faces was another of the miracles Martin pointed out, and another example of drawings full of information about expressions and movement but reluctant to give their secrets away. 

hans holbein the younger

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait drawing of Cicely Heron. Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

You make a lot of decisions in drawing from drawings. One might be whether to copy the original marks or to translate the forms of the drawing into your own marks. Perhaps with the former you lose the spontaneous visual response to the work - but with the latter you miss out what makes the drawing a drawing. How to get at the essential quality of a drawing is still a complete mystery to me, but Cicely Heron’s complexion, in one of the four Holbein’s, and scrawley yellow bodice were delicious. 

Explore more drawings in the Royal Collection here 

For more information on The Drawing Year, click here