Nationwide exhibitions of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection to open in 2019
In February 2019, to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci, 144 of the Renaissance master’s greatest drawings in the Royal Collection will go on display in 12 simultaneous exhibitions across the UK.
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing, a nationwide event, will give the widest-ever UK audience the opportunity to see the work of this extraordinary artist. Twelve drawings selected to reflect the full range of Leonardo’s interests – painting, sculpture, architecture, music, anatomy, engineering, cartography, geology and botany – will be shown at each venue in Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Southampton and Sunderland, with a further venue to be announced.
Following the exhibitions at Royal Collection Trust’s partner venues, in May 2019 the drawings will be brought together to form part of an exhibition of over 200 sheets at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, the largest exhibition of Leonardo’s work in over 65 years. A selection of 80 drawings will then travel to The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse in November 2019, the largest group of Leonardo’s works ever shown in Scotland.
Revered in his day as a painter, Leonardo completed only around 20 paintings; he was respected as a sculptor and architect, but no sculpture or buildings by him survive; he was a military and civil engineer who plotted with Machiavelli to divert the river Arno, but the scheme was never executed; he was an anatomist and dissected 30 human corpses, but his ground-breaking anatomical work was never published; he planned treatises on painting, water, mechanics, the growth of plants and many other subjects, but none was ever finished. As so much of his life’s work was unrealised or destroyed, Leonardo’s greatest achievements survive only in his drawings and manuscripts.
The drawings in the Royal Collection have been together as a group since the artist’s death, and provide an unparalleled insight into Leonardo’s investigations and the workings of his mind. Leonardo firmly believed that visual evidence was more persuasive than academic argument, and that an image conveyed knowledge more accurately and concisely than any words. Few of his surviving drawings were intended for others to see: drawing served as his laboratory, allowing him to work out his ideas on paper and search for the universal laws that he believed underpinned all of creation.
The exhibitions Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing will include examples of all the drawing materials employed by the artist, including pen and ink, red and black chalks, watercolour and metalpoint. They will also present new information about Leonardo’s working practices and creative process, gathered through scientific research using a range of non-invasive techniques, including ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence. The findings will be brought together in a groundbreaking new book, Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look, published by Royal Collection Trust in February 2019.
Leonardo used ink made from oak galls and iron salts, which is transparent in infrared light, allowing his black chalk underdrawing to be seen for the first time. Examination of A Deluge, c.1517–18 (to be shown at the National Museum Cardiff) revealed that beneath the pattern-like arrangement of rain and waves in brown ink, Leonardo drew a swirling knot of energy in black chalk at the heart of the composition. Similarly, in Studies of water, c.1510–12 (to be shown at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield) he built up the image in stages, first creating an underlying structure of water currents in chalk and then adding little rosettes of bubbles on the surface in ink, almost as decoration.
All the drawings by Leonardo in the Royal Collection were bound into a single album by the sculptor Pompeo Leoni in Milan around 1590 and entered the Collection during the reign of Charles II. What appear to be two completely blank sheets of paper from this album will be on public display for the first time at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Examination in ultraviolet light has revealed these sheets to be Studies of hands for the Adoration of the Magi, c.1481 and among Leonardo’s most beautiful drawings.
Leonardo executed the studies of hands in metalpoint, which involves drawing with a metal stylus on prepared paper. One of the sheets was examined at the UK’s national synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source at Harwell, Oxfordshire, using high-energy X-ray fluorescence to map the distribution of chemical elements on the paper. It was discovered that the drawings had become invisible to the naked eye because of the high copper content in the stylus that Leonardo used – the metallic copper had reacted over time to a become a transparent copper salt. By contrast, A design for an equestrian monument, c.1485–8 (to be shown at Leeds Art Gallery), which is drawn with a silver stylus, is still fully visible.
Martin Clayton, Head of Prints and Drawings, Royal Collection Trust, said, ‘The drawings of Leonardo da Vinci are a national treasure, both incredibly beautiful and the main source of our knowledge of the artist. We hope that as many people as possible across the UK will take this unique opportunity to see these extraordinary works, which allow us to enter one of the greatest minds in history, and to understand the man and his achievements.’
Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing (1 February – 6 May 2019) at Walker Art Gallery