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.

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