There is a pen and ink drawing in this exhibition by Leonardo da Vinci, just a few inches square, which has a terrifying topicality. A gigantic curling wall of water, a veritable tsunami, loaded with the stones of some destroyed building, hurls itself towards a tiny strip of landscape which it is bound to overwhelm. It is something that Leonardo could never have seen, part of that strange mixture of prophecy and investigation of nature that characterises his life and art. In contrast to this vision of cataclysm, which the present generation has now seen, is one of his anatomical studies, a dispassionate record of one of his own risky dissections, and two drawings of great subtlety, one a silverpoint of different views of a horse (studies for an equestrian monument), the other of a clump of flowering rushes drawn with a red chalk which must have been of exceptional hardness, given its fineness of detail.
These are among the most awe inspiring of a group of 75 drawings and watercolours selected from the some 40,000 in the Royal Collection, amassed principally by Charles II and George III. The quaintly alliterative title, Holbein to Hockney, is somewhat misleading as Leonardo lived a generation before Holbein; while the pencil drawing by Hockney of Lord Rothschild, the most recent work in the show, is a rather feeble affair, drawn with the aid of a camera lucida to prove one of Hockney’s unexceptional theories about the use of mechanical aids.
But there are many wonderful things here, arranged in rough groupings of heads (mostly portraits), nudes and academy drawings, landscapes, figure studies, and natural and artificial curiosities (including a watercolour of a flap-necked chameloeon by Ustad Mansur, a painter at the 17th-century Mughal court, and one of an armoured breast-plate by Nicolas Poussin).
One of the two portrait drawings by Holbein is his study of Sir Thomas More, the outlines pricked with tiny holes as a means of transferring the image to a panel for the completed painting. This is a reminder that something we now regard as an autonomous work of art was at one stage in its life simply a tool. The same process is at work in a conventionally beautiful drawing of the Madonna and child by Sassoferrato, where the surface is heavily scored with a grid as a means of enlarging the image. It is of particular interest to see William Strang’s chalk drawing of Admiral Fisher, made in 1908, hanging next to these Holbein drawings. The understated but precise line and floated colour of Strang’s portrait drawings are a conscious updating of Holbein’s method.
The drawings of Lord Fisher and Henry James are part of a group that comprises members of the Order of Merit. There was a commissioning policy for these which lapsed, but was revived in 1987. However, it seems that the chosen artists must be British—an awfully British approach!—which means that some of the most accomplished foreign draughtsmen who are capable of decent portraits, such as Avigdor Arikha and Daniel Quintero, are excluded. It is a pity, and rather strange in a collection so rich in continental art. Indeed, the collection seems to lack a sure touch as far as contemporary art is concerned—a felttipped pen drawing by Feliks Topolski of the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of York should not have found its way into this company. On the plus side is a sexy modern rendering of the myth of Diana and Actaeon by Leonard Rosoman, who once taught at the Edinburgh College of Art.
Among the finest of the landscape drawings are a typically spiky Guercino and a vigorous depiction of the lower reaches of the Grand Canal in Venice by Canaletto. These are likely to have been finished drawings in their own right, as is one of the supreme figure drawings in this exhibition, Michelangelo’s nude risen Christ. Outstanding among the preparatory drawings, though completely disparate, are Raphael’s study in silverpoint of the figure of Poetry for a fresco in the Vatican and David Wilkie’s sketch for his painting of the presentation of the keys of Holyroodhouse to George IV in 1822—an event that happened a few yards from the venue of this exhibition. It is a drawing that emphasises that as compositional draughtsman, Wilkie is unsurpassed among British artists.
These are some of the riches of an exceptionally rich exhibition. Even if there should be somewhere an underlying unionist agenda in now bringing sections of the Royal Collection north, such exhibitions are a more than welcome addition to the wealth of historical art that is now regularly seen in Scotland.
Duncan Thomson is a writer and was formerly Keeper of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery