The Encounter: coming face to face with the past at the NPG


John Godsalve by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1532

Roll up, roll up – read all about it! The National Portrait Gallery has just opened its doors to an exhibition called ‘The Encounter: Portrait Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt’. This exhibition, whilst not colossal in size, includes some giants of Art History.

Right, I thought, it’s going to be a scramble to get tickets and a bit of a rugby scrum inside to see anything. Well, actually, it wasn’t. The whole visit was a rather pleasant experience. The curators have not crammed the walls with drawing upon drawing but hung the portraits at one level, shoulder-to-shoulder and grouped into simple, digestible themes. There was room to move around, step back, look close. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from empty and being there on a Sunday may have had something to do with it. None the less, there is not the mad rush-hour-on-the-tube kind of crush that I’ve experienced before in other exhibitions.


Perhaps because it was on this particular Sunday when Mr Federer was playing on court one for the Men’s Finals…? Maybe it’s due to the whole exhibition consisting only of portraits? Or perhaps it’s because they’re all drawings? It is these last two factors, however, which make this exhibition so engaging and fascinating. (Although if Federer made an appearance, I wouldn’t complain…)

The Encounter might seem like a more suitable title for the next Tom Hiddleston spy drama but according to the curators Tarnya Cooper and Charlotte Boland, it refers to the meeting of the artist and the sitter. Arguably there is another encounter which takes place between the sitter (or drawing) and us, the viewer. “Couldn’t that be said for all portraits?” I hear you ask. Well yes, but the wonderful thing in this case is that they are drawings and therefore more intimate, immediate and spontaneous than, say, the planned and finely executed painting.

The interesting thing about drawings, at least in the case of this exhibition, is that their status is always fluctuating. By that I mean, a drawing is rarely ‘just’ a drawing. Sometimes it can be a sketch, the workings of a genius brain figuring out character traits such as the bend of the nose, the fullness of the lips or the prominence of the chin. There are also those drawings hastily and energetically composed from a live model, consisting of a mix of quick and bold or small and light marks – some right, some wrong. And then there are those drawings that feature as artworks in their own right. An intense and intimate rendition of a sitter’s likeness. Sometimes they challenge you and meet you square on, staring straight out at you. Others glance away, over your shoulder or down at a book. Some of them so lifelike, they only need to speak and the illusion is complete. Then there those which are so faint on such fragile paper, they may as well be ghosts.

“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth by Holbein’s hand.” Nicholas Bourbon, court poet

NPG_the-encounter-john-godsalveThe whole exhibition is arranged thematically. There are no audio guides because, well, there isn’t any need for one. This isn’t the sort of exhibition that will challenge your perceptions on 15th and 16th century portraiture or attempt to condense large complex themes into bitesize chunks. No, you’re here simply to look and enjoy.

On entering, we are introduced first to a certain Mr John Godsalve whose portrait was drawn by none other than Hans Holbein the Younger, one of the most renowned portrait artists of his day. His gaze engages you immediately. Guarded and suspicious, he looks out at you from the corner of his eye with a letter in his hands. The colour washes were added last and help to make this character all that more life-like. Holbein’s meticulous attention to the sitter’s naturalistic details extend throughout the portrait even to include Godsalve’s patchy stubble.

This little gem hangs at the very beginning, on its own and, much like a carrot hanging at the end of a stick, tempts you to follow on into the other rooms to see what else is in store. It epitomises what the whole exhibition is about, this powerful and intimate exchange between artist and sitter and hence why he’s the poster boy for the whole exhibition.

As you work your way around the exhibition you are guided through the different functions and uses of drawings. You are met with faces from the Italian Renaissance and the Baroque depicted in different mediums, from metalpoint to coloured chalks. Drawings were often considered as practical tools in an artist’s workshop and were usually the means of preparing for a larger more substantial painted work. Sadly this resulted in many drawings being unattributed and their subjects are mysterious men, women and children with missing identities. This does not detract but arguably increases their appeal…

We see how artists learnt to draw by copying. Artists had more freedom to experiment as paper became more readily available in Europe during this period. With the arrival of ‘the sketchbook’, pages and pages were filled with figure studies and hastily drawn compositions. Some of this pages are on view for us to see, most notably one by Rembrandt where he has scribbled portraits, mother and child compositions as well as another self-portrait (we can expect no less from the man who painted at least 70 during his lifetime).

NPG_young man wearing a cap_venetian artist.jpg
‘Young Man Wearing a Cap’ by an unknown Venetian artist, mid-16th century

This evolves into the section on Drawing from Life. Included are a number of studies with some truly captivating characters who gaze out at you in their own distinct way. One of my favourites was Young Man Wearing a Cap. Unknown Venetian artist and unknown sitter. And yet I could not look away from this softly modelled figure cast half in shadow, his expression one of deep thought with perhaps a flicker of anxiety or concern. As you step back, the more life-like he becomes, almost transforming into a soft-focus sepia photo from the early 20th century.

It is really in the last two sections where the exhibition explores Drawing the Court: Hans Holbein the Younger and Capturing Likeness where you will truly fall in love with these drawings. It is here that you see how even in times where there is no information about the sitter’s identity, his or her emotional state is captured on the page by the artist. Those who are identifiable demonstrate the power of the court artist in establishing the reputations of the sitters and how Holbein in particular provided the foundations for our perceptions of the period.

“… in making a portrait from life everything consisted in being able to recognise the unique qualities in individuality that nature gives to each person rather than the generality common to all.” Filippo Baldinucci, ‘Life of Bernini’, 1682

NPG_young man wearing cloak, clouet
This dishy fellow was certainly a highlight. ‘Young Man Wearing a Cloak’ att. to Francois Clouet, c.1560

It strikes me as perhaps a little ironic that it is difficult to put all there is to say about this exhibition onto one page (albeit a digital one) when you see how much an artist is able to capture in just one of these portraits. All there is to say is that with each encounter I was repeatedly amazed and stunned by the skill and beauty of every example. Maybe that’s because, I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for drawings. But, having read some of the other reviews for the show, it seems I’m not alone when I say this is a five star exhibition that comes thoroughly recommended. 

It is well-known that there is nothing like going to see the real thing and in this case in particular, it really does make the artworks come alive.

‘The Encounter: Portrait Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt’ is on at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 22nd October 2017, tickets are £8


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