Drawing in silver to gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns

Right up at the top of the British Museum there is currently a delightful exhibition on the Renaissance technique of metalpoint drawing. It draws on a huge selection from the British Museum (and Her Majesty’s) archives to demonstrate how the medium has evolved and adapted since it was first used by devotees Leonardo da Vinci and Hans Holbein the Elder. Some of the older pieces involved are clearly preparatory sketches for larger works and reference tools to show either prospective clients or to use within the studio. Metalpoint allowed for great detail, such as in Leonardo’s famous helmeted soldier, whilst also being portable and easily stored. However, as the technique becomes less well known and rarely taught it is treated as an individual method which is an end in itself, often resulting in intimate or personalised works. I was particularly interested to read about one recent commissioned silverpoint work which had been created by melting down a client’s gold watch to form the stylus to draw with.

The technique involves using a metal stylus, usually of silver or gold, which transfers onto a specially prepared abrasive paper to create the delicate lines. The paper itself requires great skill to prepare as it involves a mixture of animal bones, or other gritty substances, combined with an adhesive and a coloured wash before painting the paper itself. This initial preparation must be consistent as it is difficult to erase marks after the metal stylus is applied to the paper. Although the main colour used for the paper was a light reddish colour there was also a variety of blues and greys depending on the metal used in the stylus.

The exhibition provides an interesting overview of how metalpoint has been used and valued over the years and one of my favourite pieces demonstrating this was that of a metalpoint book. This was a small journal-type volume which was created using the specially prepared paper and had a metal stylus in its fastening. Its portability allowed its owner to sketch using metal point outside and draw landscapes or spontaneous scenes, and therefore these journals were often used by artists during the 17th and 18th centuries. This simple adaptation of the technique’s tools illustrated its move out of the studios and into the everyday, intimate life of an artist.

The exhibition continues until the 6th of December so there is still just over a month to visit this intriguing selection of pieces and enjoy the fruits of the British Museum’s archives as well as learning about this unusual artistic technique.

Ming: 50 years that changed China

Several years ago I went to an exhibition at the V&A featuring the Imperial Chinese Robes worn during the Qing dynasty at the Forbidden Palace. I found the designs and the intricate social distinctions they conferred fascinating. I therefore knew that I had to make sure I saw the recent Ming exhibition at the British Museum to continue filling the gap in my knowledge. The exhibition was very well structured so that even someone who knew very little, such as myself, could follow the chronology and understand why they had focused on the particular years involved. The Ming dynasty actually lasted for several centuries but the reigns of several emperors particularly encouraged a flourishing of cultural patronage. Elaborate pots were made using a technique of metal wires and enamel, huge scrolls were delicately decorated like bamboo in the moonlight and rugs, china and silk were made to fill the palaces of the imperial family.

Without a doubt my favourite object at the exhibition was the red lacquer table as the dedicated craftsmanship which this piece of furniture required was overwhelming. Not only was the table covered entirely with the most intricate carvings of dragons, plants and other depictions which might have taken me hours to disentangle but creating the lacquered finish itself was a time consuming business. The lacquer coating had to first be made from a poisonous plant extract before being applied to the table. Each coating could take up to 24 hours to dry and a table of this quality could be coated in up to 100 layers. I can only imagine how impressive the table would have been, before our age of smoothly and easily finished plastics, to one who was aware of the extreme luxuries involved. I definitely will now appreciate the appearance of lacquered objects in fiction to a greater extent.

However, although there were a great number of luxurious objects in the exhibitions there were some that appeared particularly modern in their simplicity. For example, the minimalistic detailing on a pair of golden chopsticks would not have looked out of place in a modern home despite the fact that they were found in the tomb of a 15th century Chinese princess. They almost looked as if they had been used the day before to eat dimsum. I learnt a great deal about the range of Ming culture from the exhibition as it exploded with colour in one moment and radiated serene calm the next. This variety created a balance between the objects so there was no risk of becoming overwhelmed or bored with what you could see.

Sadly the exhibition is now over but there is still some excellent information on their website here and some of the exhibits will return to their home museums around London and so can be seen for free, including the lacquer table! This is a great motivation to explore some of the treasures which fill the permanent collections of the city’s museums as they can be visited again and again, often without the crowds of the more popular exhibitions.

Between Light and Screen: Turkish Shadow Puppets

The British Museum is currently showing a small exhibition drawn from its collection of Turkish shadow puppets. They are made out very thin leather which is carefully cut into the necessary shapes before being coloured and jointed together. They are then placed against a screen which has a light source in front of the puppeteer to project a story. This is part of a strong tradition going back over 500 years.

Many of the stories are well known and often told. They contain stock characters who wear specific clothing to make them easily identifiable. These two men, Karagöz and Hacivat, are neighbours who are often fighting but also try to help each other while their different temperaments lead them in opposite directions. They remain popular characters and have even appeared on Turkish postal stamps.


Every character clearly had their own personality which was immediately clear from their clothes, face and hair. As someone new to these stories I still smiled when I saw the pompous character, sympathised with the young female character and recognised the miser. These shadow puppets dated from throughout the twentieth century but they remain current and relevant. Now I just need to watch a real shadow puppetry show so I can see the puppets as they are meant to be used!

The exhibition continues until 28th September so if you’re in the area or visiting the British Museum in the next couple of weeks it would make an amusing detour. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/between_light_and_screen.aspx