Arts & Books

Art review: Damned counts, dancers and caricature clerics

Study of Heads, by Michel Corneille the Younger (1642-1708), from Unseen

Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery,
Courtauld Gallery, London, until March 29

On the mezzanine of the Courtauld Gallery, just off its famous ammonite-like curving staircase, a room once used by the Keeper of the Royal Academy has been re-opened as a new drawings gallery for the Courtauld’s private collection.

Unseen, its first exhibition, is both a wistful tribute to the origins of the Royal Academy in Somerset House, and a surprisingly earthy celebration of form in 19 rarely seen drawings.

A big-bottomed lady, seen from behind, sashays through a doorway in a blue-toned watercolour by Henry Fuseli, Keeper of the RA in the early 19th century. More dynamic is the pen-and-ink sketch of a dancer by Sir Joshua Reynolds, the Academy’s first president.

Also on display are a rare life drawing by Rubens, a Henry Moore sketch and a sheet filled with studies of the expressive lips of Lady Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, by the English artist George Romney.

Giovanni Battista Paggi’s drawing from 1591 of Dante and Virgil in the last circle of hell is enough to make one shudder. Of the two poets, shown wandering across a frozen lake of imprisoned traitors, one would sooner follow Virgil, who hastens, than dally with Dante, who strikes up conversation with Count Ugolino della Gherardesca. The damned count, whom Fuseli and Reynolds also once drew, gnaws hungrily at the Archbishop of Pisa, who starved him to death.

Find solace here in Fra Bartolommeo’s meditative drawing of trees swaying in a hilltop breeze, and find wit in a caricature of three clergymen in 17th-century Italy by Pier Francesco Mola.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (13/2/15)