Summer is a time for travel and adventure, and art museums, whether in Paris or in Princeton, offer an opportunity for both. In the words of Emily Dickinson:
The brain is wider than the sky, For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.”
“Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum,” on view at Princeton University Art Museum through Sunday, September 17, offers a chance to travel in both time and space — from the Loire to Nantes, through 18th-century pastoral scenes with cattle fording a stream. We see erupting volcanoes in Naples; Sicilian ruins from the Temple of Apollo; abbeys and castles and waterfalls. You can allow yourself to be whisked off to Strasbourg Cathedral, the Puerta de Alcala in Madrid, or to Stonehenge on a stormy day, surrounded by birds, a flock, a shepherd, and his dog.
“Great British Drawings” includes more than 100 works depicting the world through the eyes of artists from Thomas Gainsborough to Aubrey Beardsley and David Hockney. The exhibition “celebrates a diversity of techniques and media, including metalpoint and mud… (and) casts a compelling lens on British art, history, and culture through drawing — the most intimate and spontaneous expression of the creative process — as manifested in portraits, landscapes, still lifes, narrative scenes, decorative designs, and book illustrations,” says Curator of Prints and Drawings Laura M. Giles.
Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology and the oldest university art museum. Its collections, ranging from Egyptian mummies to contemporary art, tell stories of the world’s great civilizations, from Egyptian pre-Dynastic sculpture and ceramics to the foremost collection of modern Chinese painting in the Western world — talk about a journey through time.
Meditating on the small works in “Great British Drawings” transports the viewer to a world of misty skies and hazy hills, with milk maids and fishers surrounded by a harmony of waterlilies, clouds, and lichens.
One of the most revered artists in the exhibition is the British poet and revolutionary thinker William Blake (1757-1827). Blake’s artworks have a dreamlike quality, balancing serenity and revelation. Here we see a work that reflects his own spiritual conversion, depicting the baptism of Christ.
Toward the end of his life, Blake produced 102 watercolor illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, which narrates the author’s spiritual journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Blake renders these ethereal evocations and celestial light, a tiered arrangement of heavenly beings anchored by Earth.
Blake’s art heroes, whom he knew through their engravings, were Michelangelo, Raphael, and Durer. An apprentice engraver himself after studying drawing in Paris, he developed his own vision while inspired by the contours of Michelangelo’s figures. He believed in the power of a crisp outline: “The more distinct and sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art … Leave out this line and you leave out life itself,” he wrote.
Born in Soho, London, the third of seven children, Blake demonstrated artistic promise at a young age. His parents encouraged him by purchasing Old Master prints and plaster casts for him to copy. He was apprenticed, at the age of 14, and sent out to study London’s gothic churches. In 1779 Blake was accepted as a student into the Antique School of the Royal Academy, where he became an outspoken enthusiast for Michelangelo and Raphael.
By 1789 Blake had become established professionally and was producing work of startling originality. His publisher also published the works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley, and other leading writers of radical politics with whom Blake began to associate. During this period Blake composed his poems and prophecies and invented the method he used to publish them that he called “Illuminated Printing.”
Though one of the most popular English artists, Blake is still one of the least understood. “Blake was a complete original: his power, his tenderness, his wit, his graphic line are like no-one else’s, and it’s good to remind people every so often about his colossal imagination and his moral vision, which are just as potent now after 200 years as they were when he brought them into the world,” says Blake Society President Philip Pullman.
In his final years, Blake inspired a younger generation of artists including Samuel Palmer, whose work is also on view here, and his innovations in color printing anticipated the monotypes of Degas.
Palmer started out as a conventional landscape painter but in 1824, upon meeting Blake, abandoned London and established an anti-academic brotherhood called the Ancients in the Kentish village of Shoreham. There he produced poetic works depicting the natural world as an archaic rural paradise, untouched by the industrial revolution. He described his work in brush and India ink, “A Young Man Yoking an Ox” — enlightened by the cosmic brilliance of the sun — as the “valley of my vision.”
By 1768, according to Giles, the foundation of the Royal Academy gave new impetus to the study and role of drawing for the artist “whose status had evolved from that of craftsman to creative genius.”
Toward the end of the 18th century, British artists sought a balance between the specifics and the spirit of a place, seeking to communicate a mood, be it sublime and awe inspiring or picturesque, such as a Gothic tower or tumble-down cottage. Journeying through the countryside, rather than making the Grand Tour abroad, was a source of national pride, and with it came a growing emphasis on capturing nature’s transient effects, such as the atmospheric landscapes by J.M.W. Turner.
“Great British Drawings” takes us from watercolors as a medium of tinted drawings of finely ground pigment suspended in an aqueous solution, yielding transparent colors that allow light to come through the paper, into the early 19th century when it became an expressive medium, displayed in frames, to rival oil painting — a professional fine art that was portable. It was “the Golden Age of Watercolor.”
As used by Turner, watercolor was characterized by bold brushwork, with close attention to detail that reveals his training as an architectural draftsman.
Another writer, one known for nonsense poems — Edward Lear — was a leading natural history illustrator, then a landscape painter. Here we see, in his rendering of “Constantinople from Ayoub,” how he worked — making pencil sketches during his daytime travels, elaborating with color and ink during evenings.
In 1848 William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded their own anti-establishment movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, seeking the freshness and simplicity of art before the 16th century with its emphasis on bright colors, simplified line, and symbolic detail. The Pre-Raphaelites focused on imaginary and nostalgia-driven scenes, often inspired by medieval history and literature.
The Pre-Raphaelites admired Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who also favored medieval themes and legends, and Millais and Rossetti were commissioned to illustrate Tennyson’s work.
“Great British Drawings” continues through avant-garde London, where painters were celebrating urban subjects and includes modernist influences from post-Impressionist and Cubist art, through 1920s abstraction, a return to realism, and concluding with portraits by three of Britain’s leading contemporary artists: Frank Auerback, David Hockney, and Tom Phillips. “While striking different in expressive forms of mark-making,” says Giles, the curator, they “share with their predecessors the art of capturing visual truth on paper.”
Great British Drawings from the Ashmolean Museum, Princeton University Art Museum, through Sunday, September 17. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. 609-258-3788 or artmuseum.princeton.edu.