Rare old master drawings to be shown at National Portrait Gallery

More than 50 rarely seen drawings regarded as some of the finest of any from the Renaissance and Baroque periods are to be exhibited together at a major show in London.

The National Portrait Gallery announced on Thursday its first-ever exhibition of old master European portrait drawings, with works from the 15th to the 17th centuries by artists including Leonardo da Vinci, Dürer, Holbein, Rubens and Rembrandt.

The show will include drawings that are seldom viewed because of their sensitivity to light.

The NPG director, Nicholas Cullinan, said hidden treasures from some of the finest public and private collections in the UK would be on display. “Some of the drawings were perhaps never intended to leave the artists’ studios, but are arguably among the most engaging and powerful impressions of personal likeness in the history of art.”

Among jewels in the exhibition will be 15 drawings being lent by the Queen from the Royal collection. They include a remarkable Study of a Male Nude by Leonardo from c1504-06 and eight portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger, including a wonderfully coloured one of Sir John Godsalve.

Other works include a group of drawings produced in the studio of Annibale Carracci, which are in the Devonshire collection at Chatsworth, Derbyshire, and a preparatory drawing by Dürer for a lost portrait of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who had been sent to Nuremberg as ambassador to Henry VIII. It is being lent by the British Museum.

Detail from Study of a Male Nude by Leonardo da Vinci, c1504-06, from the Royal Collection. Photograph: The Royal Collection/PA

While some of the portraits are of identified sitters, curators said many were faces from the street, whether a nurse or a shoemaker or a child.

The show’s co-curator Tarnya Cooper, the gallery’s curatorial director, said it was exciting to show the richness and wealth of portrait drawings held in collections in the UK.

“We’ve chosen 50 objects for this show and we must have seen 300 or 400 drawings across the collections in the UK. There were quite a lot of things which surprised us, that we had not seen before or had not been well documented or catalogued.”

One of the criteria for choosing the works, Cooper said, was to have drawings that show “a moment of energy and connection” between the sitter and the artist.

“Part of the appeal in looking at portrait drawings is that they seem to speak to us directly without embellishment or polish. In contrast to painted portraiture, the graphic process appears unmediated by the artfulness of technique.

“Some of the drawings in this exhibition were executed at speed, capturing a fleeting moment in time, while others were more finished and controlled, yet still appear to have an honesty and integrity that captures a dynamic connection between artist and sitter.”

Because of the drawings’ sensitivity, the galleries will operate with low levels of light and visitors will be given time to adjust to this.

All of the drawings are by men simply because, Cooper said, curators only came across two, out of the hundreds they looked at, by women artists and neither met the criteria set for the exhibition.

Types of tools and media used by the artists, including metalpoint and chalks, will also be displayed.

The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt is at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 13 July-22 October.

Holbein the Younger’s coloured drawing of Sir John Godsalve. Photograph: The Royal Collection/PA

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