On Exhibition Catalogues or Great British Drawings: Art Book Appreciation

An exhibition catalogue is a generally large book with notes and pictures of the paintings, drawings or other works of art exhibited at a particular show at a museum.

The notes, what do we want in the notes? A description of the subject matter of each of the works of art? A bit of the biography of the artist or artists? A description of how the art was created and what materials were used? An idea of where the artist was at geographically, professionally, chronologically, emotionally and spiritually when he or she created the art? In a perfect world, all of the above and possibly more.

Much of this may be found in Great British Drawings, the catalogue of an exhibit held at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 2015. The book presents a number of the Ashmolean’s own drawings from 1650 to modern times. Along with the extensive notes on each drawing, there are very good introductory essays on the history of British drawing schools and British watercolors (or “watercolours”). The only negative I saw was that the Ashmolean’s definition of drawing is broad, including what I would describe more as watercolor paintings. Though I am a great fan of watercolor, I would have preferred to see more works strictly in charcoal, graphite and pen and ink.

That said, it was delightful to be introduced to artists unfamiliar to me, or see familiar artists in a broader light. For example, Gainsborough, whose oils give me a feeling of old fashioned formality comes across as playfully charming in his chalk drawing of a milkmaid with two cows.

The authors appear to be great admirers of Ruskin and his place in the history of drawing and speak of him purely as an artist and great public educator, thankfully free of speculation on the odder aspects of his personality which you often see in other treatments.

In general, the book avoids the chronological arrogance that assumes the myth of progress, and blathers on about racism, sexism, colonial attitudes, etc., etc. of the past. This volume appreciates the beauty of the works themselves and lets the artists be the creative forces they were and were valued for being in their own time and context. 

Great British Drawings, Colin Harrison with Caroline Palmer, Katherine Wodehouse and Harry Dickinson. Essays by Susan Owens and Timothy Wilcox. Ashmolean, 2015.

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