The Heart of Drawing

The Heart of Drawing – Scottish Drawing at the Royal Scottish Academy

The artist John Byrne raised hackles this week when he referred to the Glasgow School of Art as a “fun factory”. “Not one of them can draw – they all have delusions of grandeur,” he said of the place where he, and lately several Scottish Turner Prize winners got their training. “It’s like going to a music school and nobody’s got an instrument.”

Byrne has spoken his mind before – on subjects like the National Theatre of Scotland. Draftsmanship losing out to the surge of contemporary art was a complaint also voiced by the late John Bellany, whose early drawings surely remain remarkable.

Byrme’ remarks met a predictable and probably justifiable response and some back-pedaling followed. But perhaps the skills he had in mind – even as he rapidly “clarified” his words – were something like this.

A Turkish Pasha, by Sir William Allan

A Turkish Pasha, by Sir William Allan

Drawings are at the heart of the current Royal Scottish Academy show. They include not only preliminary sketches for a major painting by a Scottish Orientalist, Sir William Allan (1782-1850), but an album of sketches by David Scott (1806-49).

Scott founded his private Life Drawing Academy in early 1827, a decade before the RSA opened its own. The sketches raise curiosity about the artist – the RSA has a giant, wild tableau by him, Cain Degraded, currently hanging in its offices on the Mound. Here’s a link to that image. He comes across as gifted but unstable, given to unruly Biblical scenes.

  • David Scott RSA
    Life Study Old Man Clasping his hands

“Scott was a bit of an outcast and this weighed on the mind of a sensitive artist. He was somewhat self taught, and he had an unbelievably wild imagination that was often accused of overtaking his abilities as an artist,” said Sandy Wood, collections curator at the RSA.said Sandy Wood, collections curator at the RSA. “I would say his album of life drawings here certainly cements his ability as a talented draughtsman and artist.”

There’s a sense of mystery in the Scottish Drawings exhibition, in the RSA building’s ground floor until 28th February.

Last year these works by Allan and Scott were among a group of several hundred 19th Century Scottish drawings, returned to the RSA after a long-term loan term to the National Galleries of Scotland. They have not been on public view for at least four decades, if ever.

Their RSA used their display to elicit drawings from living members, which unlike the 19th Century pieces are mostly for sale. Willie Rodger, born in 1930, best-known for his woodcuts, has turned out legacy works from 60 years ago. Townhead, Glasgow, from 1953, shows the tower blocks of a new era rising over curving tenement streets, at £2,250.

Willie Rodger artist RSA Drawing Exhibition

Townhead, Glasgow, Willie Rodger

Drawings and sketches have been likened to an artists hand-writing or aide-memoires. Perhaps a little like dipping into an artist’s studio, even their working thoughts, whether the artist is Victoria Crowe, or the Victorian photography pioneer David Octavius Hill.

“The potency of drawing never diminishes either as a process of discovery, or communication, or as finished articulated statements,” says the RSA’s Michael Agnew. They offer a unique insight into the practises and philosophies of artists and architects, and “it is refreshing to see outputs that demonstrate the breadth of drawing as methodologies for problem solving, sketches illustrating ideas or initial concepts and indeed finished works in their own rights.”

Not all the ‘drawings’ in the show are predictable; Derrick Guild’s witty creation is nary more than a drip of black paint from a nail in the wall.


Another particular favourite, no classical sketch, was this from Andrew Cranston, of a (grumpy? prickly?) young man of the household:

Andrew Cranston artist Royal Scottish Academy

Lewis drawing (in his Russian hat) by Andrew Cranston

Cranston’s work has been rightly singled out by the likes of the Guardian; this was priced at £1,000.

“Drawing is just any kind of mark-making and it can be two dimensional mark-making or three dimensional mark-making,” said artist Marian Leven, whose work hung opposite drawings by her husband Will MacLean, another highlight. There was Victoria Crowe’s lovely Lillium Regale (understandably pricey at £6,750), a set of three colourful boat scenes by Leon Morocco that fill an entire wall, and the popular Joe Fan’s View from Above.

Joe Fan

Joe Fan’s View from Above

After RSA members were invited to respond to the 19th Century works with their own, there came such a flurry that the originals get a fairly modest showing, mostly under glass at the side of one room. They include the work of Thomas Duncan, who died young of a brain tumour in 1845.

Thomas Duncan Royal Scottish Academy drawing

Study of a man wielding a salmon leister (chalk) by Thomas Duncan.

Salmon poaching featured in the work of several Scottish artists of the period, but there’s a mystery here: this looks like a well-finished preparatory study for a painting, but if the work exists there is no record of it. There are also Duncan’s figure studies of Bonnie Prince Charlie, though the young artist John Sheriff modeled for the Prince.

For anyone intrigued by the artist Sir William Allen – one of the lesser figures among the Orientalist painters but who spent nine years in Russia, traveling widely – his album of 27 drawings of Circassian captives, most tied to an 1815 painting A Circassian chief selling to a Turkish Pasha, are a treat.

  • Sir William Allan Royal Scottish Academy
    Studies of arms, Sir William Allan

Brian Sewell, the art critic and a specialist in Old Master drawings in his auction house days declaimed in one review: “Drawing used, until well into the 20th century, to lie at the heart of painting and sculpture; it is no longer so…” He calls drawings the “mortar of the art historian’s bricks,” an artist’s “hand-writing”.

The RSA talks of them as an “aide-memoire”. Drawing, notes a short guide to the pictures, “has a lasting legacy. As a technique it was for long championed as one of the basic skill sets, mastery of which was essential for anyone aspiring to a career as a painter or sculptor. Scottish art colleges, in particular, were long praised for the quality of teaching of drawing they provided.”

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