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Drawing in the age of the pickled shark: BBC's new programme on drawing from the Renaissance to today

Surgeons and contemporary artists are still inspired by the draughtsmanship of Leonardo and Turner

BBC2 television promises to let us into The secret of drawing. But “secret” has become an over-used word by publicity departments, lending a certain aura to the duller idea that something we may not know is about to be explained. Education is advertised as mystery and adventure. So you would have been disappointed if you had hoped to learn how to get going with drawing.

Rather, Andrew Graham-Dixon, the writer and presenter of this four-part series, tells “the story of man’s relation to the natural world…how we’ve used drawing to get to grips with the world around us, to grasp its beauty, but also to grapple with our own place within it”. What is it about drawing, he asks, that makes it so necessary, so important that, as part of a surgeon’s equipment, as we shall see, it “can mean the difference between life or death”, and so compulsive as to become, in the hands of a landscape artist like Turner, “second nature to him”. It is the “secrets” that drawing reveals to us and about us, Mr Graham-Dixon says, and how these change our way of seeing and understanding the world. Drawing is the “driving force” behind modern scientific advance and contemporary investigation.

The framework for this four-part series is art historical and thematic. Programme one, “The line of enquiry”, asks, what is a line capable of, what can it communicate, and where does it lead? It highlights the cross-pollination between art, science and spiritual curiosity, and the fruitful dialogue that ensues with a receptive viewer.

Mr Graham-Dixon looks at this theme through the work of pioneer practitioners such as Leonardo, Stubbs, Turner, Constable and Audubon; and three contemporaries: Dr Francis Wells, a heart and chest surgeon at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge; and artists Richard Long and George Shaw. Nicolas Poussin is singled out by name, among a host of anonymous artists commissioned by Cassiano dal Pozzo for his Paper Museum, a collection of more than 7,000 watercolours, drawings and prints, assembled during the first half of the 17th century.

Mr Graham-Dixon is the thoughtful person’s art journalist and his television essay on “The line of enquiry”, bears his hallmarks: the well-turned phrase, the deft interweaving of a series of sub-themes from Leonardo’s scrutiny of the inner workings of the human body to George Shaw’s documentation of his “invisible” life on a City of London council estate, all brought nicely to bear on the point of the programme. Once or twice an irrepressible witticism surfaces as Mr Graham-Dixon has “a rare chance to get face to beak” with John James Audubon’s well-preserved birds, or when he speculates with Colin Pillinger, leader of the Beagle 2 space mission, on whether John Russell, an obsessive 18th-century recorder of the moon’s surface, would have wanted to join the Apollo crew.

The programme is an ambitious synthesis of ideas, educational in the broad BBC tradition of bringing the public up to date with current thinking in specialised circles. Mr Graham-Dixon does not have a ground-breaking argument; he simply puts the “case for drawing in the age of the unmade bed and the pickled shark”. But even Tracey Emin makes a thing of drawing. In fact, drawing has been reviving in art schools for some time.

It is no accident that the series coincides with the national Drawing Campaign’s sixth Big Draw. If you are a thoughtful person, who does not draw, this engaging series might get you going. It would be hard to make out a more agreeably persuasive defence of drawing as the thinking person’s tool. Its unhurried pace, lingering on the drawings, with mercifully few distracting gimmicks, will please any art lover. There is much in it to inspire and encourage the draughtsman in us all. After all, drawing is everywhere, Mr Graham-Dixon points out. Drawing is instructive, but it is also about thinking and feeling. And, if honestly practiced, is an essential tool in the search for truth. It is better than photography, for it leads in the act of looking and looking again to personal discovery, intellectual and spiritual understanding, to the mystery of life itself. The visual presentation of these large ideas on television is glorious.

Perhaps the most fascinating sub-plot in this narrative is the revelatory use of drawing by the eminent heart surgeon Dr Francis Wells, who makes drawings before he goes to theatre to work out where the incisions should be made in performing an operation. “Surgery is all hand-eye co-ordination,” guided by the mind, he says. “If you’re not afraid of drawing then it’s a wonderful tool.” Even more intriguing are the sketches he makes by dipping one of his instruments in the patient’s blood, while waiting for the heart to resume its normal rhythm at the end of a cardiac operation. Blood is a “wonderful medium to draw in,” Dr Wells says. You can use diluted blood or pure blood, just as Turner used different strengths of his media. “It really does produce some wonderful pictures.”

Dr Well’s exacting knowledge was shaped by Leonardo’s anatomical quest for the truth about “the human body’s most intimate secrets”, Mr Graham-Dixon tells us. “In a truly across-the-centuries collaboration Francis Wells actually used Leonardo’s intricate drawings of the human heart as the basis for a pioneering form of surgery” on the mitral valve. Dr Wells adds a qualification. “One has to be careful that we’re not romancing it too much”. Leonardo’s drawings do not provide “the solution to all our problems. Nowadays, by thinking about these observations that Leonardo made, it can take you down lines of thought that you might work out yourself with other information that’s available.”

The secret of drawing, An Oxford Film and Television Production for BBC 2, 8-29 October. Writer/presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon. Series director Ian MacMillan.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 163 November 2005