The Ashmolean has been a world centre for the study of drawing since 1843, when it bought the Raphaels and Michelangelos from a group of works on paper formerly belonging to portrait painter Thomas Lawrence. His Old Master drawing collection was one of the greatest ever assembled, and its dispersal much lamented, but the Renaissance works were its jewels, and their arrival in Oxford established the Ashmolean’s reputation and quickly drew gifts and bequests, including one from John Ruskin, of drawings and watercolours by Leonardo, Dürer, Titian, Brueghel, Samuel Palmer, Pissarro and many others. The collection expanded in the 20th century and now stretches to Gwen John, David Hockney – a virtuoso pen and black ink sketch of Henry Geldzahler writing – and Antony Gormley.
With 50 artists across five centuries represented, this is the UK drawing exhibition of the year. The range of works by Michelangelo and Raphael covers the entire scope of their careers. Michelangelo’s includes a study for the Sistine ceiling, vigorous and robust; a stunning, delicate “Ideal Head” in red chalk on off-white paper; a late contemplative image of the Virgin and the risen Christ. The Raphaels feature an early kneeling Magdalen subtly outlined in silverpoint; the famous depiction of the heads and hands of two apostles, one youthful, the other elderly, in black and faint white chalk, made just before his death in 1520.
The history of landscape drawing is traced from its beginnings with Dürer’s “View of the Cembra Valley” (1494); there are early and late watercolour sketches by Turner; Rembrandt’s powerful, painterly “Head Study of an Old Man”, in pen and brush with brown ink over black and red chalks; Degas exploring ways of suggesting movement in “A Seated Jockey”; and Cézanne experimenting with space and volume in the luminous “Still Life with Peaches and Figs”. All offer, as drawings uniquely do, insights into artists’ thoughts and working methods, and are also engagingly immediate works of art in their own right.
Until August 18, www.ashmolean.org