Drawing from Turner: so as to better understand

Stephen Farthing

This exhibition is the outcome of a research project that set out to improve understanding of the process of learning to draw by making drawings of fine examples. It comes at a time when both within secondary and tertiary education there are few shared assumptions over how we should either define or teach the subject. But in the light of the fact that for the past fifty years at least there has been just one solid area of agreement, which is that copying is no way to learn. This exhibition questions that assumption.

So as to better understand

Raymond Carver’s short story Cathedral deals with the inadequacy of words and the business not so much of making a copy, but of following the hand of an experienced guide. In Carver’s story the narrator, referred to as ‘bub’, is sitting in front of a TV after dinner with Robert, a houseguest who is blind, when a program about European cathedrals comes on. After a few minutes, bub says:

“Something has occurred to me. Do you have any idea what a cathedral is? What they look like that is?” the guest replies: “I know they took hundreds of workers fifty to a hundred years to build…But if you want to know the truth, bub, that’s about all I know”.

Then Robert stares at the TV and starts to try to describe what he sees using words like “tall” and “reaching up. Up and up.” Realising that he’s “not doing so good”, he finds a big sheet of paper and a broad felt tip pen, and gets his guest down on the carpet:

He found my hand, the hand with the pen. He closed his hand over my hand. “Go ahead bub, draw,” he said…So I began. First I drew a box that looked like a house…Then I put a roof on it. At either end of the roof, I drew spires. And so they continued making the picture, and as they travelled across the paper Robert reassures bub that he’s “Doing fine.” In the end, Robert says, “I think that’s it, I think you got it…Take a look. What do you think?” Without opening his eyes, bub replies: “It’s really something”.

From Cathedral by Raymond Carver. First published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1983

Art School

Up until the end of the nineteenth century the best art schools were founded either within or very close to the learning resources of a good museum. During the last century however, as the art world became less dependant on spending time with the real thing, and reproductions in one form or another became the primary way for most of us to experience art, art schools began to swap their proximity to collections for space, technology and white walls.

In 1871 when John Ruskin founded his drawing school in Oxford he clearly believed that the quality of the school was contingent on the quality of the teaching collection (a collection of fine examples of drawing selected to act as pedagogical models). Sadly, given John Ruskin’s enthusiasm for the project just fifty years after his death, fashions in art education had moved on to such an extent that this teaching collection became an irrelevance to the every day life of not just his art school, but just about every art school.

By 1980, the Ruskin school had moved out of the Ashmolean, and the Royal College of Art painting school was making plans to move out of the V&A. These were two significant moves that weren’t simply precipitated by art schools failing to see the point of being part of a museum, but also by the museums’ frustration with their lack of space and the accommodation of those who may have appeared to have been ungrateful lodgers.

At that time the loss of physical and psychological dependence on museums was clearly tied up with a loss of interest in the past and an appetite for all things new. Today however, with both Modernism and Postmodernism firmly positioned in history I suspect it may once again be possible to argue in favour of the analysis of the past being an important part of an artist’s education and the development of meaningful relationships between museums and art schools being the catalyst that enables it. This exhibition sets out to be one small step in that direction.

Drawing From Turner began to take shape in the autumn of 2004, when Chelsea College of Art moved away from the King’s Road to become Tate Britain’s new next-door neighbour in Pimlico. At a practical level the point of the move was to bring all of the component parts of the college together on one site. At an academic level the point of the project was to get to know our new neighbours a little better, and with them to re-examine how we teach drawing.

Drawing from Turner

Drawings and manuscripts give up the process of their making more easily than books, films, paintings and sculptures. Or, as the American painter Brice Marden so elegantly put it, ‘the hand touches more delicately in drawing. There is less between the hand and the image than in any other media’. With this ‘transparency’ in mind, the project and exhibition Drawing from Turner was designed.

In total nearly sixty people contributed to this project. Each person was invited to make their own drawing of one by Turner from a sample group of about thirty drawings selected from the Tate’s Turner Collection. The aim was for the individual to discover what they could learn about their chosen subject by drawing it. The aim was not to make either a slavish copy or an extravagant interpretation, but through the process of study and drawing to better understand, the methods, inventions and creativity of its maker. What remained open-ended throughout this pilot was both how we defined the word copy and whether we choose to use it at all. For this reason, participating artists were asked to try to work forensically with their chosen drawing ‘re-treading’, as it were the hand of the draftsman. The goal was not to forge, but to try to understand.

Drawing from Turner: The Summary

Find out the results of a questionnaire designed by Professor Stephen Farthing, University of the Arts London and Dr Maryanne Martin, University of Oxford, with a view towards establishing a profile of each of the participants and their response to the research question: Does making transcriptions from the drawings of high achievers have a part to play in a curriculum for learning to draw today?