One of the greatest artists, scientists & thinkers in history

A review of ‘A Life in Drawing’ at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

In celebration of 500 years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, the Royal Collections Trust have arranged exhibitions across the UK of some of Leonardo’s original drawings from their collection.

Rarely seen in public and so delicate that, even for the short periods of these exhibitions, they need to be displayed in low-light conditions to preserve them, these drawings illustrate the sheer depth and breadth of Da Vinci’s ability to capture the essence of, well, anything!

With my own poor eyes, I struggle in low-light conditions, so my first impressions were not particularly enthusiastic. But in the gallery, perhaps aimed at high-tech visitors as much as the visually impaired, was a large screen-table. On this we could choose an image of one of the drawings on display and enlarge and rotate it. Immediately I relaxed and explored: the technology worked well and allowed me to really look at the details of these 500 years old sketches. And was there detail! With just (for example) a goose-feather pen Leonardo was able to illustrate the seed-heads of rushes or the bones and muscles of the arm in a way that no one had done previously. That’s quite an achievement.

What first struck me as I maneuvered a given image on the large screen was that I often couldn’t tell which way up the image was, even though they had written explanations alongside the drawings. This puzzled me until I read a bit more about how this genius worked: he was left-handed, writing on cloth-based paper and, to avoid fighting the nap of the material, he wrote from right to left! No wonder I couldn’t tell which way up it was.

Besides plant-life, animals and anatomy, Da Vinci was sometimes required by his patrons to design sets and costumes. Some of the resulting imaginary animals, drawn as if from real-life, would have stood up well as mythical Potter beasts.

“One of the greatest artists, scientists & thinkers in history”

… is how the exhibitions described Da Vinci, a phrase that contrasts with a common theme in our blogs here: as to how one-sided are modern descriptions of things. Either scientific or artistic. In Leonardo, before this paradigm split became established, we have an example of someone who studies a thing. Not studied it scientifically or studied it artistically but studied it. Whatever his current topic of interest happened to be (from horses in preparation for an equestrian statue or military equipment in a city preparing for war), he would watch and listen, sketch and make models so that he might know his subject . . . beyond any specialisation of discipline. We could all learn from such an approach.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Leaving the main exhibition in Bristol, you’re directed through a display by three young local artists exploring an item from the museum in the context of Da Vinci’s work and influences. One, for example, asked how alike to or different from Leonardo are the rest of us? Do not we too have his natural curiosity?

I certainly found this part an excellent opportunity to reflect a bit more deeply on the insights of this great man. Nicely done.


It’s not a large or extensive exhibition, but there is much in it to be inspired by and to ponder over. If you miss it in Bristol or other regional cities (until 6 May), do catch the next phase of the exhibition in London from 24 May to 13 Oct 2019, at Buckingham Palace.

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