Northern Lights: Fascinating works from one of most important artists are spine tingling

Drawing activities at Weston Park Museum � Andy Brown
Drawing activities at Weston Park Museum � Andy Brown

In February 2019, twelve drawings by Leonardo da Vinci selected from the Royal Collection will come to Sheffield as part of a major nationwide exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death. 

The drawings demonstrate the diversity of Leonardo’s interests – from painting and sculpture, to architecture, music, anatomy, engineering and cartography. They will be shown as part of Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, a series of exhibitions that will open simultaneously in cities across the UK.

It is important to ask difficult questions of art, and to have an opinion

It is incredible to think that marks on paper made over 500 years ago feel so relevant now. The idea of the genius or master artist is still important, although few people have reached the heights of Leonardo.

At Museums Sheffield, we hope this work will inspire a new generation of creative minds.

Drawing is part of our everyday lives; a map on a scrap of paper, a doodle on a beer mat, a child’s drawing of a much-loved family pet kept in a bottom draw, or Grandad’s quickly sketched plan for planting the allotment. We draw to work things out or to explain things.

As John Ruskin points out, ‘All art is but dirtying the paper delicately’.

Leonardo could not have imagined his drawings ending up in Sheffield 500 years after his death, but we’re pleased that his papers, dirtied with awe-inspiring delicacy in pen, ink and chalk, have survived.

During the Renaissance everything changed.

Although those living through it at the time may not have been aware of its significance, there was a huge shift in the way people lived their lives, what they did and how they thought. The thing that persists and survives from this period, more than any scientific discovery or political movement, is the art of the age. It reflects a changing set of relationships between people, politics, nations and spirituality.

The way we live now is changing at a rate not seen since the Industrial Revolution – it’s been called the ‘New Renaissance’, but also ‘The end of times’.

The only constant seem to be change and it can feel like the world today is more turbulent than ever.

To be able to cope in this new environment our people need to be able to respond creatively. As possibly the most famous polymath that has ever lived, Leonardo’s drawings are the perfect vehicle for us to show teachers and students alike the diverse pathways to learning that art can offer.

Leonardo was at the forefront of technological and artistic development; he is known for his experimentation with materials, his vision, ambition and imagination.

He was truly ahead of his time; credited with inventing the helicopter, the bicycle and glider, his knowledge was encyclopaedic. The power of drawing to aid the imagination is critical; Leonardo did not build working prototypes, instead he dreamed with his hands and used the flow of his pen to inscribe the ideas that lived in his imagination.

It is important to ask difficult questions of art, and to have an opinion.

Not liking an artwork is just as important as liking it. If you queue up to walk past the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and feel slightly let down by its scale, and maybe a lack of a moustache, then that is fine, it’s your opinion and it’s what you felt.

The Leonardo drawings that are coming to Sheffield are such an important part of history that, for me, they send a tingle down the back of your neck. You can imagine him, sat at a table, drawing by candle light, illuminating the future, imagining possibilities. In many ways, in these uncertain times, that is what we need people to do now.

It’s really important that these works are being shown in the regions. The diversity of Leonardo’s work is fittingly matched by the diversity of the collections here in Sheffield.

These collections exist because of the far-sighted generosity of our forebears, who recognised that a successful, healthy and talented workforce needs creative inspiration in order for new ideas and innovation to flourish.

Arguably, people need great art and culture as much now as we did half a millennium ago - it helps us reflect on our past, question the present, imagine the future, and find our place in the world. I’m imagining a future where skills such as drawing are considered fundamental.

The chance to see these works by one of the most important artists that has ever lived, and to see them here, in our home city, has the potential to be a formative and life-affirming experience. I, for one, can’t wait.