Drawing out essence of Leonardo

He was arguably the greatest artist of all time but with much of his life’s work unrealised or destroyed, many of Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest achievements are seen through his drawings.

Thursday, 31st January 2019, 5:03 pm
Updated Thursday, 31st January 2019, 5:08 pm

Opening at the  Millennium Gallery on Friday, Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing will display 12 of his most extraordinary drawings from the Royal Collection as part of a major series of exhibitions taking place in 12 cities throughout the UK to mark the 500th anniversary of his death.

The drawings reflect the diversity of Leonardo's interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology, botany and his observations of the movement of water.

Among the works on display in Sheffield is The Head of St Philip, a study for one the famous painting, , the Last Supper; The Vessels of the Liver, based on a dissection he did as part of an autopsy on an old man; and Studies of Water  – in which he captures the fall of water into a pool and the flow of water past an obstacle.

Kirstie Hamilton, Director of Programmes at Museums Sheffield, said: . “He is such a huge figure, it’s easy to understand why some people might feel intimidated by the work of a great Master. But the remarkable thing about Leonardo is that you don’t need to know lots about art or history or science to enjoy or appreciate his work. These drawings are fascinating and beautiful in so many levels  everyone will find something in them.

“How we teach and how we learn has changed, but these drawings demonstrate how art can inform and help us see and understand the world round us.  When you take some time out to really look at his drawings you realise what he sees is quite miraculous.”

“You can get quite a sense of the man really,” she continues. “That’s the beauty of how the works have been selected which is to show the breadth of his practice and the breadth of  materials he worked with so you get the paper and the chalks, the inks and goose feathers which he also used.

“You see the different facets of the man, you start to see they weren’t separate for him. We might say you study either science of art but to him it is all one thing, it is the world around him. Observation is his skill and tool for understanding which is so relevant today.”

Revered in his day as a painter, Leonardo completed only around 20 paintings. He was respected as a sculptor and architect, but no sculpture or buildings by him survive. He was a military and civil engineer who plotted with Machiavelli to divert the river Arno, but the scheme was never executed. He was an anatomist and dissected 30 human corpses, but his ground-breaking anatomical work was never published. He planned treatises on painting, water, mechanics, the growth of plants and many other subjects, but none was ever finished.  

“His drawings were central to his work in every field, both his artistic projects and his scientific investigations,” observes  Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust, “they allowed Leonardo to work out his ideas on paper and can be viewed as his private laboratory.”

Some of the works are double-sided, three of the 12 in Sheffield  which means there are 15 images to see. “They are leaves out of books,” explains Hamilton. “It’s a real mixture, Leonardo did use every scrap of paper that he  could. Paper wasn’t as disposable as it is now and he like every artist made sure they used every inch.

The drawings in the Royal Collection have been together as a group since the artist's death and numbering  550 are the most extensive and important collections in the world.  But the public rarely get the chance to see them.

“The drawings are light sensitive so there is a limit on how much they can be exhibited,” she explains. “There were a group of different drawings shown at the Graves about 10 years ago. And there was a show in Nottingham a couple of years ago but showings have to be limited so they don’t deteriorate in any way.

“It’s very exciting that they are showing so many at one time because it is no mean task organising how you get these highly important things across the country at the same time so that every venue opens and closes on the same day.

“I think the idea was to get a Leonardo within an hour’s drive of everyone in the country as they possibly could. It’s really exciting, with Manchester, Leeds, Derby and us you could go and see quite a few Leonardos this spring.

“That driver to get things out of London so that people around the country can see them rather than have to go to London is fantastic.”

In May all  the drawings will be brought together to form part of display of more than 200 sheets at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the largest da Vinci exhibition in  65 years.  

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is on view at the Millennium Gallery from February1 to  May 6 and will be accompanied by a programme of talks, events and activities inspired by Leonardo and his ideas