British Museum blog

The art of the masters: drawing in silver and gold

An Van Camp, Curator, Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints, British Museum

Our latest Prints and Drawings exhibition recently opened in Room 90: Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. Organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the show brings together over one hundred stunning works of art, around half of which are from the British Museum’s own superb collection; the other half includes some of the most spectacular pieces from museums and private collections around the world. For the curatorial team involved in this show (Hugo Chapman, Giulia Bartrum and me) it was incredibly exciting to see all the drawings we’ve been researching for the past four years displayed together at last, and reproduced in the beautiful accompanying catalogue. It was also exhilarating to finally welcome the couriers who had flown in from museums all over the world to unpack, condition check and hang the drawings they had brought with them.

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art.[HYPERLINK TO NGA Exhibition Webpage].

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Every one of the works on display are masterpieces in their own right, made by Dutch, Flemish, Italian, German, British and American artists, dating from the late 1390s up until the present day. Some of our highlights include Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Warrior and Jean Fouquet’s Portrait of a Man. 

All these drawings are united by one unique feature: they have all been made using one particular drawing technique, called metalpoint. It is quite unusual to stage an exhibition around a specific drawing technique but we felt so compelled by these metalpoint drawings that we wanted to show examples from all around the world. The show reveals how the most brilliant artists in history used this technique and how it has evolved from its earliest use up until the present day.

So what is it? Metalpoint is quite a complicated but mind-blowing drawing technique in which the draughtsman draws with a metal stylus or rod, either in silver or gold (hence the exhibition title). We all know it is impossible to draw with metal on a sheet of paper; you can even try to draw with some of your silver or gold jewellery to test this… So the paper first needs to be prepared with a special layer which will abrade the metal. This abrasive ground is made of glue mixed with burnt animal bones which have been crushed into powder. The mixture is then brushed onto the paper, after which the artist can start drawing. As the stylus is drawn over the surface it leaves tiny traces of metal particles, resulting in a visible drawing.

Different metals used for drawing in metal point.

Different metals used for drawing in metalpoint.

Washington conservator Kim got slightly obsessed by this metalpoint technique and started experimenting herself. This resulted in a fascinating essay in our beautiful exhibition catalogue and Kim herself even features in our exhibition as she can be seen in a video demonstrating the technique.

Some artists working in metalpoint prefer a coloured ground, and so may add pigments to the mixture. When you visit the exhibition, see if you can spot some of these beautiful drawings on yellow, orange, pink, red, green and blue grounds. In fact, some of my favourite drawings in the exhibition are made on a brightly-coloured ground: for instance the Self-portrait by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius is made on a yellow tablet, while the female saint by the Italian Fra Filippo Lippi is drawn on salmon pink.

So why did draughtsmen decide to use this complicated drawing technique? The answer varies from century to century. Initially metalpoint was used in the workshop as a drawing tool to make very fine and precise lines as other drawing tools, such as a chalk sticks or quill pens, were not accurate enough. The preciseness of metalpoint allowed for highly-detailed drawings and this made it a very suitable technique for young artists learning how to draw, or for more experienced artists who copied other works of art for reference. From the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards artists started to take metalpoint outdoors for use in their small sketchbooks. As the metal stylus did not smudge or require liquid, it was of course very useful to artists who were travelling around to make topographical views or portraits of their patrons. Although most of these sketchbooks were taken apart in later centuries, we show three intact examples in our exhibition. With the discovery of graphite in the late sixteenth century, the use of metalpoint diminished as it was now possible to use a cheaper and easier material, while at the same time producing precise lines as the point of a graphite pen could be sharpened. Surprisingly, however, metalpoint continued to be used in the Netherlands, mainly by artists recording snapshots of their family life and their travels. Only a few metalpoint drawings by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt have survived and they were made during a trip in 1633 to the north of the Netherlands, when he got engaged to his future wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Some of the drawings on show are of typical cottages from that region and give us a glimpse of the world of Rembrandt. There are almost no metalpoint drawings from the eighteenth century but the technique underwent a revival in England in the nineteenth century as artists wanted to copy and learn from the techniques of the Old Masters. For example, in the exhibition you can compare a study of the Virgin and Child by the Italian artist Raphael, made around 1509 with an almost exact copy made after the original in the British Museum by Alphonse Legros around 1885/90. Contemporary artists also still use metalpoint, especially in the United States, as a way to test their artistry and master this long-forgotten technique.

Apart from the three sketchbooks in the show, we have also included other objects related to the drawings: a few prints, a silver statue and even a cat mummy!

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Photo 4 - Mummified cat eyeing up some dead mice.

And we also experienced another great moment during the installation when the cat went after some of the mice drawn by the British artist Charles Hazelwood Shannon.

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls, and here is the moment when the last frame was installed:

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls and here is the moment when the last frame was installed.

I really hope that these small insights into the preparations behind this show have inspired you to come and see the show yourself, and perhaps even experiment with metalpoint too. One of the contemporary artists who is featured in the show will come and give a demonstration of metalpoint, so why not come and give it a go yourself?

Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns is on until 6th December 2015. For associated events, see our Events programme.

Filed under: Drawing in silver and gold, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , ,

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, , , , , ,

Renaissance under review

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity

I’ve just got back to my desk from the press launch of the exhibition and although it’s just gone midday I feel exhausted. I gave a 10 minute speech to the assembled journalists in the Reading Room and then fielded a few questions. Thankfully the grandeur of the setting, with Sidney Smirke’s Pantheon-inspired vault above us and the beauty of the Renaissance drawings, had a calming effect.

Only time will tell whether this will wear off once they return to their computers to write their reactions to the exhibition. So far the reviews have been excellent, but will the drawings of Verrocchio, Leonardo and the others conquer all?

Tonight it’s the launch party with hundreds of guests invited. Sadly all the curators at the Uffizi in Florence, who I was so looking forward to showing around the exhibition, have been prevented from coming by the volcanic ash. It’s a subject worthy of a Renaissance allegorical painting: Vulcan trampling on Mercury (the gods of volcanoes and the arts respectively) but with Fame blowing a trumpet, and perhaps the party loving Bacchus, providing a more positive spin on events.

In the exhibition there’s an eye-catching, if somewhat bleak, allegory of this kind showing mankind, represented by a blind woman, being led to a precipice by a variety of dodgy characters including Deceit, Ignorance and Folly. This is definitely an image one should keep in mind during this election period.

I imagine it will feel a little odd to be in the exhibition with quite so many people. Over the last weeks I’ve grown used to the space with just a handful of people putting up the drawings. An exhibition that has for the past three years existed first in my head, and then in the evolving plans of the designer, will finally be viewed.

Aside from the predicted laid-back and unimpressed reactions of my two teenage sons, I hope that the opening crowd like what they see.

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Image caption: Andrea Mantegna, Allegory of the Fall of Ignorant Humanity (‘Virtus Combusta’) About 1490-1506

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

A Renaissance cover-up

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

I’ve been ducking in and out of press previews as the opening day approaches so in a rare spare moment, I’m taking the opportunity to catch-up on our progress over the last week.

Inspecting the drawings

Before being carried up from the basement storage to the Reading Room to be hung, the 50 drawings from the Uffizi gallery were given some rest time to get over their long journey from Italy.

The handmade rag paper on which the majority are drawn (the exceptions are a couple of works on parchment made of animal skin) has the quality of a living organism. It expands and contracts according to the level of humidity in the atmosphere. Such minute changes need to be monitored and the first thing that happens when a drawing comes out of the crate is a thorough examination by a paper conservator from the British Museum.

As in the medical records that our doctors look at when we go for a check-up, the drawing’s condition is compared against a detailed report written by a paper conservator of the lending institution. Usually this consists of a photograph with the stains, tears, repaired holes, undulations and other scars of 500 years of existence marked.

The British Museum conservator and the Uffizi courier (the person who has overseen the transport of the works) check this condition report to see that nothing has altered during the drawing’s journey.

Drawing with a paper cover

Normally the toughness and resilience of paper means that it adjusts to the change in atmospheric conditions. In the rare cases where changes have occurred: for example the surface has become fractionally more undulating; the drawing will be put on a list to be monitored closely during the run of the show.

The condition checking over, the drawings were ready to be put on the walls. The position and spacing of each work has been worked out by the exhibition designer and once they’re on the wall, each of them is covered over with paper to protect them from light so that the inks and washes do not fade in the bright lights needed for the installation.

For a time the exhibition had the air of a contemporary art installation piece. With all the works on the wall and the lighting at the right level, we could start taking the covers off and with just days to go, I’m looking forward to seeing if our visitors are as excited by the result as I am.

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Inspecting the drawings
A drawing with its paper cover

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

One Leonardo – to go

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

For the last couple of weeks we’ve been carefully installing the exhibition in the Reading Room. It’s been an exciting – if slightly nerve-wracking – time as the plans we’ve had in place for so long are finally realised.

Statue of Bacchus

Perhaps strangely for a drawings exhibition, the first work to be installed was a first-century classical marble sculpture of the Roman wine-god, Bacchus. He’s one of the star pieces in our Greece and Rome department and has just returned from a world tour of British Museum masterpieces.

The revival of classical art and learning is central to the artistic revolution that occurred in Italy in the 1400s – the French word Renaissance that we use to describe the period means rebirth and was coined by artists and scholars of the period to claim that they had revived the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. In truth the classical world had never disappeared, but it is true that artists began to look at ancient sculptures with a new intensity.

Marble figures like Bacchus encouraged artists to recognise the sensuality and beauty of the human body. The sculpted Bacchus presents an idealised vision of the perfect male body. Such are his charms that lipstick has had to be cleaned off him more than once – I’m hoping he will continue to cast his spell without us needing to wipe off the lip gloss.

But now we’re turning our attention to paper – so much part of our lives that we tend to take it for granted, but this exhibition transports us back to the 1400s when it was a new and precious material.

The Chinese invention of papermaking had been brought to Europe via the Islamic world. The invention of the printing press in Germany in the 1450s gave a huge impetus for papermaking, above all in Italy which was the most literate and urbanised region of Europe.

Renaissance paper was handmade from cloth fibres (not wood pulp as today) obtained from old clothes, sails and ropes.

Drawings in storage

Fortunately for us paper’s durability makes it possible for centuries-old drawings like those we’re displaying in this exhibition to travel safely. However, like the venerable voyagers they are, the Renaissance drawings from the Uffizi need time to rest after their journey from Florence. After a few days to acclimatise the Uffizi drawings will be ready to be hung on the walls of the Reading Room.

I can’t wait to see them out of their crates and on the walls.

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Marble statue of Bacchus (Dionysus)
Drawings in storage, ready for display

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

Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings

Hugo Chapman, Exhibition Curator

As curator of the soon-to-open exhibition, Fra Angelico to Leonardo: Italian Renaissance drawings I’ll be writing weekly about what’s happening behind the scenes as the show takes shape before it opens to the public on 22 April.

The exhibition consists of a hundred of the greatest Italian fifteenth-century drawings from the British Museum and the Uffizi in Florence.

The process of selection from the two best collections of Renaissance drawings came close to fulfilling my childhood dream of being locked in a sweet shop… the difference being that I was picking out Leonardos, not sherbet dib dabs.

For the last three years I’ve imagined how the drawings would look in the soaring space of the Reading Room. This week we’ve started to hang the drawings, so finally the waiting is over.

Will the drawings that I thought would work so well together turn out to be good neighbours? Time will tell.

Next week I’ll be back with an insider’s peek at the exhibition installation.

Hope you enjoy following our progress.

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

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#todayimet goddess of love, Aphrodite. In this statue the voluptuous Aphrodite crouches down at her bath and turns her head sharply to her right, as if surprised by her audience. This Roman copy from the 2nd century AD is based on an original sculpture from Hellenistic Greece. This statue is lent to the British Museum by Her Majesty the Queen.
You can fall for the goddess of love in Room 23, one of our Greek and Roman sculpture galleries.
We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum #WWIM12 For @instagram's 5th birthday we’re sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the British Museum.
#todayimet this Ming Dynasty figure, who helped judge people in the underworld! The belief in Hell entered China with Buddhism during the early 1st millennium AD. This figure of a judge’s assistant is holding records of evil deeds under his left arm. Meet this fearsome figure (if you dare!) in our Asia gallery (Room 33) #WWIM12 We’re celebrating @instagram's 5th birthday by sharing portraits of some of the characters you can find in the Museum.
#todayimet Ramesses II, who ruled Egypt for 67 years over 3,000 years ago. This colossal statue is one of the largest pieces of Egyptian sculpture in the British Museum. Like all Egyptian statues, it was originally painted. Traces of pigment remain: black for the eye pupils, red for the skin, and blue and yellow for the stripes on the headcloth.
Meet the pharaoh for yourself in our Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (Room 4) #WWIM12 Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together the incredible Iron Age, Roman and early medieval collections of the British Museum and @nationalmuseumsscotland.
Roman control of southern Britain broke down around AD 410. New leaders established Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England, and Roman towns and cities were largely abandoned. Neighbouring communities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales continued to develop their own unique identities. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art, learning and literacy, perpetuating and reinventing local traditions. Communities here spoke languages that we now call Celtic, and practiced a distinctive form of Christianity.
Striking stone crosses, such as this one found in Monifieth, Scotland, combined ancient Celtic curves with Anglo-Saxon knotwork and interlace designs to express these distinctive Celtic identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. This sculpture may have been a personal memorial or grave-slab.
Slab of grey sandstone with a cross on one side. From Monifieth, Angus, Scotland, c. AD 800–900. National Museums Scotland.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our #Celts exhibition opens today! It brings together stunning objects from the British and Irish Isles as well spectacular loans from across Europe.
This magnificent cauldron is one of the most important and intriguing finds from ancient Europe. It reveals connections between communities thousands of miles apart. Although it depicts objects used in central and western Europe,
it was found in a bog near Gundestrup in Denmark, beyond the northern edge of the Celtic regions. The style of the designs suggests that it was made further east, in Bulgaria or Romania. The strange animals and cross-legged pose of
the antlered figure hint at even wider influences, from as far afield as Asia. The scenes on the panels give a glimpse into a world of ancient myths, and the stories of gods and heroes whose names are now lost.
The Gundestrup cauldron was probably reserved for important rituals. It is likely that most people would have viewed it from a distance, seeing only the forbidding faces of gods and goddesses on the outer panels. The fantastical scenes on the inside would have been revealed to those allowed to experience the cauldron close up.
Gundestrup cauldron. Iron Age, c. 100 BC–AD 1. Found in Gundestrup, northern Jutland, Denmark. @nationalmuseet, #Denmark.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at Our major new #Celts exhibition is now open! Come on a 2,500-year journey tracing what it means to be Celtic...
The peoples first referred to as Celts lived across much of Europe north of the Alps, in villages or fortified hilltop settlements. Although not a single distinct group, they were interconnected, sharing cultural ideas across the continent. The objects they made for feasting, religious ceremonies, adornment and warfare were both stunning works of art and powerful ways to convey shared values and beliefs. Their unique abstract style set them apart from the classical world, but their technological accomplishments stand on par with the finest achievements of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
2,000 years ago valuable objects like this were cast into rivers. This magnificent shield was found in the River Thames at Battersea Bridge. It was not made for serious warfare as it is too short to provide sensible protection. Instead, it was probably made for flamboyant display. The highly polished bronze and glinting red glass would have made for a great spectacle.
The Battersea shield. Iron Age, c. 350–50 BC. Found in the River Thames, London, England.
Find out more about #Celtic art and history and book tickets at

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