The Sunday Telegraph
Rare exhibition of Dutch masters is a study in virtuosity
Making a Mark: Dutch and Flemish Drawings from the Royal Collection Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
Who is this kindly old woman with downcast eyes, depicted in a delicate pencil drawing by the 17th-century Dutch artist Cornelis Visscher? Her modest, worn dress, decorated only with a simple bow, suggests that she isn’t well to do. At her temples, tufts of white hair escape from her bonnet, adding to the impression of cashstrapped disarray.
Yet, Visscher has captured her likeness with tremendous sensitivity, cleverly using the veins in his sheet of vellum (prepared calf ’s skin) to evoke every wrinkle. Was she a much loved maidservant? A former wet nurse? Perhaps this isn’t a portrait at all, but a study of a “type”, popular at the time and known as a “tronie”? Sadly, we can’t determine the nature of the artist’s relationship with his subject – except that Visscher, who signed and dated the drawing, was proud of what he had achieved.
There are only 19 Dutch and Flemish drawings, including 15 on loan from the Print Room at Windsor
Castle, in Making a Mark. But each, in various ways, is as absorbing as Visscher’s subtle work. Curated by a group of postgraduate students at the University of Birmingham, the display has a loose tripartite structure, exploring technique, sources of inspiration and studio practice, and the art market of the day.
There are portraits, such as Van Dyck’s likeness of the important patron and mayor of Antwerp, Nicolaas Rockox, who appears a touch haughty and stiff compared with the informality of the artist’s stunning oil painting of a friend playing a bagpipe in the main galleries next door.
There are also landscapes, a study of a fierce stuffed otter and scenes of everyday life. In one, pleasure-seekers play a form of golf on a frozen river. In another wintry vista shimmering with icicles and frost, people chat in groups or zip about on skates; a child tumbles backwards, while dogs in the foreground snarl. A meticulous study of a windmill, executed, peculiarly, on eight adjoined sheets of paper, transports us at once to the Low Countries.
Really, though, this is an opportunity to marvel at artistic
Fifteen of the works are on loan from Windsor Castle
virtuosity. The careful delicacy of Visscher’s portrait contrasts with the confident cross-hatching of Jan Lievens’s nearby pen-and-ink view of a bridge on the outskirts of a village, which feels brilliantly assured and modern. Look closely, and you can spot the artist’s fingerprints.
The Barber’s own sheet of head studies by Rembrandt, produced in the mid-1630s possibly as an exemplar
for his pupils (several of whom are also represented in the show), stands out in this regard: see how he evokes the plumes of the hat worn by the bearded fellow in the middle with just a few swift strokes of brown wash – before, below, switching medium altogether, adding a further study in red chalk.
Not to be outdone, the Royal Collection stumps up a double-sided sheet by Rubens, the recto of which sizzles with tumultuous marks in brown ink, summoning naked nymphs anointing the woozy head of Dionysus’s flabby follower Silenus with mulberries. The sense of Rubens’s brimming imagination is irresistible.
The show’s most winsome piece, though, is another Barber stalwart: a charming little English landscape by Van Dyck. Beyond a clump of trees, their leaves a-flutter, we glimpse the rooftops of a coastal town – probably Rye, in East Sussex – with boats bobbing in the harbour. Did the artist dash this off while waiting to set sail
back to Antwerp? It’s a lovely thought, though impossible to say for sure. What is certain is that he blocked out some of those far-off sails with watercolour before opting, immediately to the right, for just pen and brown ink, for a sparser, more linear effect. This conjures a wonderful sense of tipping and rolling movement, as the vessels seem to voyage off into the distance.
With rich holdings in 17th-century art, the Barber, a sort of miniature National Gallery for the Midlands, is the perfect setting for this sort of show. The only distraction is the incongruous gallery, a former storeroom, where it’s hung: silver ducts sprout from the ceiling, while the walls have been specially painted a “daring” green. Farrow & Ball call it “emerald”, but, really, that’s a euphemism for “bleurgh”.