Drawing 1990 - 2022: Gillian Ayres, Olga Chernysheva, Jonathan Delafield Cook, Mark Francis, Laila Tara H, Waqas Khan, Marcia Kure, Elizabeth Magill, Nina Murdoch

7 October - 5 November 2022

Drawings is a collaborative venture combining two exhibitions that have been timed to coincide: British Drawings 1890-1990 at Sotheran’s, and Drawings 1990-2022 at Purdy Hicks Gallery. Both shows emphasise the importance of drawing to artists of the last 120 years. Although many of the artists have used myriad other art forms, they have invariably returned to the honesty of drawing, time and time again.


The artists reflect their times. The artists from 1890-1980 are very much associated with strong schools of thought. One school in particular, the Slade School of Fine Art, dominates. Its rigorous process of drawing underpins much that we see but is of course interpreted differently artist by artist. There was most definitely a British School, and in terms of drawing its greatest, though largely unacknowledged, triumph can be found in the remarkable works produced by the artists of the British School at Rome with their use of drawing techniques dating back to the Renaissance. 


British Drawings 1890-1990 will show outstanding examples by Winifred Knights, Evelyn Gibbs, Anne Newland, Thomas Monnington, Robert Austin, Alan Sorrell and Reginald Brill.  Slade student Winifred Knights exemplified the teachings of Henry Tonks (Professor of Fine Art at the Slade from 1918 to 1930) with her observation of nature and meticulous methodology, working through endless studies, which were in turn painstakingly transferred to create finished works. Gilbert Spencer, another of the Professor’s students, recalled how Tonks `talked of dedication, the privilege of being an artist, that to do a bad drawing was like living with a lie, and he proceeded to implant these ideals by ruthless and withering criticism. I remember once coming home and feeling like flinging myself under a train, and Stan telling me not to mind as he did it to everyone’.


Methodology aside, many of the artists in this exhibition share common traits: an obsession with the minutiae of nature, an unbreakable attachment to landscape, an immersion in the narrative tradition, and an inability to resist humour and affection for the quirky and mundane


Drawings 1990-2022 shows that through the success of the School of London and the Young British Artists (YBA, who blossomed in the 1980s and 1990s) ideas of Britishness as a defining quality were soon discarded. London had become primarily an international centre, not a British one.  Drawing, unlike painting, somehow managed not to be dragged into the main ideological divide of the last century between Communism and Capitalism. The ‘free West’ fled into abstraction, and the Soviet Union countered with Soviet Realism. Here we have figurative works by Thomas Monnington, including a portrait of his now more famous wife, Winifred Knights, but he was also the first President of the Royal Academy to embrace abstraction. The drawings here of John Tunnard and Cecil Stephenson explore abstraction - but sneak under the radar. By the time we get to Gillian Ayres, her works on paper are unequivocally abstract, with even the division between painting and drawing are blurring.  Not surprisingly two of the younger artists in Drawings 1990-2022 at Purdy Hicks Gallery give the most contemporary take on Corbusier’s boast for drawing. Olga Chernysheva and Waqas Khan have found very different ways to help heal the wounds of the abstract/figurative cold war.


The definition of drawing was much tighter 120 years ago. There is a tendency among many contemporary artists and curators not to use the term, but rather categorise these works under the broad cover-all of works on paper. The fluidity in the terminology was different for the 19th and much of the 20th century. Here concepts about the line are of primary concern, but this allows ‘drawing’ to be seen in a wide range of media including etching and sketches in oil and tempera. All of the works in these two exhibitions however bear witness to the art of drawing and the challenge of the life-long journey that learning its art involves. As Ingres asserted, and not entirely in jest: ‘It takes twenty-five years to learn to draw, one hour to learn to paint.’

(Alistair Hicks)