Rubens and Rembrandt among the Old Masters in new exhibition in Sheffield
Occasionally an exhibition comes along that offers a rare opportunity to see seldom shown works – and Lines of Beauty, currently at the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield, is one of them.
Sheffield Museums has struck gold through its partnership with Chatsworth House, the grand Derbyshire seat of the Dukes of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family since 1549. A veritable treasure trove of wonderful artworks – beautiful paintings and tapestries line the walls and there seems to be an exquisite sculpture around every corner – Chatsworth is also home to one of the most significant private art collections in the country, said to rival the Royal Family’s collections in its scope and quality.
Lines of Beauty features some of the highlights of Chatsworth’s world-class collection of Old Masters drawings which contains around 1,800 works from some of the most important artists of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, acquired over the course of several generations, by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Dukes of Devonshire. And it’s an impressive line-up for the exhibition, with 65 drawings on display including works by Carpaccio, Poussin, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Veronese, to name just a few. When the collection was originally established over 300 years ago, viewing of the works would have been restricted to members of the social elite. Visitors to the House today are able to view some of them, but this new exhibition makes them accessible to many more people.
“Chatsworth wanted to show these works more widely and publicly,” says Sheffield Museums curator Ashley Gallant. “They have this fantastic collection and for the past 20 or 30 years the drawings have just been in storage. So the Duke created a room in Chatsworth in 2012 to display them but they only have space there to show a few of the drawings at a time and they wanted to show them more widely.
"It is really exciting to have them on display here because it is the first time in the past 25 years that this many of the drawings have been seen together before they have to ‘go to sleep’ again because they are very delicate. We are showing them and then they are back in storage for a couple of months. Then they will go to the Lightbox gallery in Woking; after that they won’t be seen again for another six to ten years. And it is incredibly unusual to have these in a free-to-enter gallery in a city centre.”
The team at Chatsworth, who are experts in the collection, selected which works could be displayed for this exhibition, but they gave the curators in Sheffield free rein in deciding how to show them. “We have been given a wide range of works from a number of different artists, so we are able to give a really broad overview and it was nice to have that freedom to do something a bit different and new with them,” says Gallant.
“Often Old Master drawings are shown along geographical lines, or in groups of artists that have influenced each other and so on. We have tried to approach it with a contemporary eye, so we have broken the exhibition down into themes – mythology, portraits, landscape and religious drawings. Approaching the drawings in that way allows us to bring out their relevance to today. It can sometimes be quite hard as an art historian to find that modern-day relevance, but breaking them down into subject matter makes that easier. It has been interesting unpicking all those connections and deciding which section a particular work would belong in – a lot of them could go across a few – and it has been fascinating learning about the history around the various works.”
Among the pieces on display are Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabines, one of a number of preparatory drawings for his large-scale paintings depicting the story from Roman mythology; drawings in pen and ink with chalk and watercolour by van Dyck, one of the most prominent Flemish painters of the 17th century; and several works by Rembrandt, the most critically acclaimed painter of the Dutch Golden Age, including his pen and ink drawing An Actor in His Dressing Room – the actor is identified as Willem Ruyter (1587-1639). The drawing dates back to 1638 and is a work that is a personal favourite of Gallant’s.
“It is such an incredible drawing – it really shows this person transforming into a character before he goes on stage,” he says. “We worked with that piece with some of the cast members who were in Sheffield Theatres’ recent production of Life of Pi and showed them the drawings. We asked them what they thought he was thinking about and we have a really nice video in the exhibition of two actors discussing how he might be feeling.”
The show is both extensive and accessible, in addition to which people will be able to really scrutinize the craftsmanship and expertise of these extraordinary artists.
“We have had everything framed for the show so people can get up quite close to them, which is not normally the case,” says Gallant. “I’m hoping that visitors will spend quite an extended period with the drawings. There is so much detail in them, you can come and spend days looking at them.”
Lines of Beauty: Master Drawings from Chatsworth is at the Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, until May 25. Free entry. On April 2 there will be a curator talk by Charles Noble, curator of fine art at Chatsworth. museums-sheffield.org.uk