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Drawn by genius

John Evans on the rare chance to view more than 200 drawings by Leonardo

30 May, 2019 — By John Evans

A Woman in a landscape, by Leonardo da Vinci. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

IT may be the half-millennium anniversary of his death, but there is no denying the vitality of the drawings by Leonardo da Vinci which have just gone on display at The Queen’s Gallery.

More than 200 works by Leonardo (1452-1519) feature, these from over 550 sheets in the collection, most acquired in Charles II’s reign.

It’s the biggest exhibition of the delicate works for nearly 70 years and curator Martin Clayton, head of prints and drawings at The Royal Collection Trust, stresses that the full extent of Leonardo’s achieve­ments were not known to his contemporaries or successors.

Among these, and evidenced here, we can see the meticulous way in which he delved into a subject, whether as artwork, or preparation for a sculpture or painting, architecture, maps, anatomy, geology, botany, and even as military engineer; one, Mortars firing into a fortress, from c1503-4, Clayton suggests is more to deal with tactics than design of a particular project, and reflects the vulnerability of the high medieval walls following the introduction of gunpowder to Europe. And Leonardo spent some months surveying fortifications for Cesare Borgia. There are also a number of his military drawing on display from the 1480s, including designs for chariots and weapons, gun barrels and more.

Yet these are not typical of this exhibition, which is arranged with a mix of chronological and thematic, because there is no single typical focus of Leonardo’s inquiries.

Planned treatises on water, light, botany and more were never completed.

The head of St James, by Leonardo da Vinci. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

From a simple but exquisitely observed red chalk drawing of a tree, with its examination of how to depict leaves in light and shade; to a distant view of the Alps from Milan or view of a river landscape or rock fall, it is Leonardo’s accuracy and attention to detail which astonish.

Yet for Leonardo art was never the whole story. As Clayton notes: “He executed only 20 or so paintings… two of his three greatest compositions were never completed, and though one (the Battle of Anghiari) was hugely influential in Florence, it was obliterated within 60 years”. No sculpture by Leonardo is known today and a proposed equestrian monument to Milan’s Francesco Sforza, a potential masterpiece, “…fell victim to the turbulence of politics and warfare that was a constant shadow over his career”.

Nevertheless, in this exhibition, there’s an abundance of horses, galloping, rearing, fighting, a whole array of studies of the animals in movement, whether relating to that monument, or that battle, as well as cavalry skirmishes and detailed examination of their musculature. There are cats, lions and dragons too.

The wonder continues with the anatomical drawings. From c1488-90 we can see The anatomy of a bear’s foot. And, from a notebook in 1489, a sectioned human skull in which he was seeking a supposed site where the senses converge.

As with many of his other anatomical studies (he reported dissecting some 30 cadavers for his scientific work) he was challenged by contemporary beliefs. Yet detailed works, such as The heart and coronary vessels and The fetus in the womb, from c1511-13, and his many drawings and notes on organs, bones, muscles, tendons – from head to toe – could have had more of an impact than they did.

In his comprehensive show catalogue, Clayton notes that the anatomical treatise was never completed. These studies, he suggests, “…were not properly understood until they were finally published in the years around 1900, and thus the work of one of the greatest of all anatomists had no discernible impact on the discipline”.

The show, of course, includes many portraits, nude studies, and a variety of miscellaneous workings.

Highlights include preparatory studies for the Last Supper, The Madonna and Child with St Anne and a lamb and the now lost painting Leda and the Swan, and even The drapery of a sleeve, for the “recently rediscovered,” and subsequently contro­versial, Salvator Mundi.

Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace Road, SW1A 1AA, until October 13. Admission £13.50, £12.20 concs, students £10.80, 0303 123 7301, www.rct.uk#Leonardo500

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