British Museum blog

The first ring of the doorbell

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’m writing on Thursday evening at the end of the first day of the public viewing of the exhibition. I was unusually nervous and keyed-up all day. I now realise my feelings were a bit like those I experience in that half hour before a party begins. The food and drink is all ready, but I can’t shake off a bat squeak of panic in my head that there’s been collective form of amnesia among my friends, or I told them the wrong date. Such nerves are quickly dispelled by the first ring of the doorbell. Would the Reading Room have only the warders in attendance on the opening day?

With these dark thoughts in mind it was heartening to step into the Reading Room around 11am to see it thronged with people. It was fantastic to witness the hushed concentration of the visitors as they looked intently at the drawings and at the explanatory films.

The scene made me think back to how panic-struck I had been three years ago when I was told that my proposed show was to be in the Reading Room. How could such a vast space be given the intimacy that drawings need? In the event the BM exhibition designer, Jon Ould, came up with a brilliant plan that gave the works space to be viewed without having a sense of the great void above.

Inside the exhibition

One of the thrills of the show was to see the transformation of the empty Reading Room platform to the exhibition space that Jon had designed. The discussions with Jon and other colleagues as to how the drawings should be structured and displayed mirrored many others that shaped the show’s formation. For me the collective, collaborative nature of creating an exhibition is the perfect antidote to the essentially lonely business of writing the book that preceded it.

I’ll definitely keep on returning to the show to savour the reaction of the viewer and to admire the drawings. Someone at the opening told me wistfully that they hoped that the Icelandic volcano would keep on erupting to allow the Uffizi drawings to remain. Volcanic ash or not the exhibition will, however, certainly close on 25 July so the clock is ticking…

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Image caption: Inside the exhibition

Filed under: Exhibitions, Italian Renaissance drawings, , , , , ,

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  1. oliver bailey says:

    The first two drawings in the section the Purpose of Drawing were one by Pietro Perugino and the second attributed to Fra Lippi. However the second bore the signature of Pietro Perugino. Was Lippi a pupil of Perugino?

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    • The inscription ‘Pietro Perugino’ on the Filippino Lippi drawing was written by a later collector and is not a signature. Perugino and Lippi were contemporaries in Florence. Such inscriptions are often found on drawings with owners recording their ideas of who they thought had made them. Often these ideas are fanciful, reflecting the optimistic tendency of collectors to inflate the status of works in their hands, but sometimes they are to be trusted as records of an artist’s name passed down the ages. For this reason the validity of old inscriptions has to be weighed up carefully. With the Lippi I think it’s most likely a case of mistaken identity, the two artist’s drawing styles are not dissimilar and the attribution to Lippi depends on a knowledge of his related fresco in Rome. It is easy to be dismissive of the knowledge of past collectors, yet this is misguided if one takes into consideration that they relied so much on their visual memory without the illustrated catalogues and the array of images available to us now.

      As for signed drawings there are very few in the 1400s (the Pisanello ‘Three Men’ in the exhibition is one) because most drawings were never intended to be seen by outsiders. Pisanello signed his drawing because his work was made as a finished work of art in its own right, hence the need to affirm his responsibility for it.
      Hugo Chapman, exhibition curator

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