Asmolean curator Colin Harrison tells Stuart Macbeth why a new exhibition of drawings is not to be missed

It was Colin Harrison’s job to trawl through the 10,000 British drawings and watercolours at The Ashmolean to choose work for its new exhibition Great British Drawings.

“We hope people will be exhilarated by the variety,” the senior curator of European Art at the museum added.

So how did Harrison even begin to select the works on display? “Many of the 10,000 are contained in volumes, sketchbooks or albums, so aren’t easy to display. But I spent a few happy days looking through, making lists based on the importance of the artist, the beauty or interest of the drawing, and its condition,” he says. Big names like Gainsborough, Rossetti and Hockney are represented, alongside figures ripe for re-evaluation, such as Irish artist William Orpen. Of the 100 or so chosen works were there any that just couldn’t be left out?

“The gifts of Turner watercolours by John Ruskin in 1861 couldn’t be omitted. Especially the magical view of Venice from 1840. We’ve had a number of new acquisitions, such as the Frank Auerbach drawing of his wife Julia”.

The Auerbach drawing comes from the personal collection of Lucien Freud, recently distributed to museums and galleries throughout the country. Another work bequeathed to the museum is a watercolour of Villa Madama by JR Cozens, made just a few years before he was committed to a lunatic asylum.

Rejected by his contemporaries, Cozens now holds the auction record for the sale of an 18th Century British watercolour. Harrison explains this is one of many works making their exhibition debut: “Reynolds’ study for New College window, Grignion’s portrait of a Chinese artist and Emily Mary Osborn’s cartoons for Nameless and Friendless, lots of drawings are being displayed for the first time. There are also a great many works which have been exhibited before, but not since the 1960s”. “There wasn’t room for everything. We had to leave out many Pre-Raphaelite drawings. We’ve had to leave out some very large works. Many of the works are extremely delicate so we have to be careful about exposure.

“Some we’ve included, like the Samuel Palmer of 1825 are extremely fragile, and might not be displayed again. Palmer’s Valley with Bright Clouds was made in Shoreham in the 1820s while he lived in a dilapidated cottage he nicknamed “Rat Abbey”.

It’s one of many views from around Britain including influential watercolours by JS Cotman of the Norwich School. There’s plenty from further afield too, such as sketches from Constantinople by Edward Lear and David Wilkie, and a fine John Frederick Lewis watercolour of Arabs and Camels.

They sit alongside plenty to interest locals: “We’ve included a number of views of Oxford. There’s a very important JMW Turner watercolour we bought some years ago. There are two especially strong watercolours by William Turner of Oxford, who lived on St John’s Street.

Is there anything unusual or quirky on display? “The portrait of Sir Salman Rushdie by Tom Phillips involves brown mud bound in Liquitex Matte. The sketchbook of William Gear which includes bus tickets from his travels in Palestine, is also most unusual.”

Oxford Mail:
Drawing from Cozens

Some drawings complement paintings on display as part of the permanent collection: “There are drawings by JMW Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, Palmer, Lear, Holman Hunt and Millais, all of whom are represented in the paintings galleries. The Sickert is a study for the Ashmolean version of Ennui.”

Sickert’s preparatory sketch in pen and ink over chalk is squared up and invites a delicate game of spot-the-difference with the painting in the upper galleries.

There’s also a Harold Gilman sketch for the Tate version of Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, similar expect from her eyes, which stare off to the left instead of straight out. There’s a separate section in this exhibition for Caricature and Satire which compliments the James Gillray exhibition which runs alongside Great British Drawings. Is there anything in this room you especially enjoy?

“Victory Celebrations, the Gerald Scarfe cartoon of Thatcher and Heath from 1975. This is one of three works on loan from Jeffrey Archer’s collection of political cartoons”.

What do you hope people will gain from visiting? “I hope they’ll marvel at the brilliance and inventiveness of so many British artists.

“We hope they will be inspired, as John Ruskin always hoped, to try to draw themselves, as a means of engaging more fully with their surroundings.”

Great British Drawings runs at the Ashmolean Museum in Beaumont Street until August 31.