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Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Fall 2017 Exhibitions

Three outstanding exhibitions in England—and two more shows to come—have a significant link in their provenance and ownership. At the Ashmolean in Oxford is a magnificent display of 120 drawings by Raphael (recently reviewed by Andrew Butterfield in the NYR Daily). Almost more than his paintings, they illustrate the sheer prolificacy and fecundity Raphael sustained until his death at only thirty-seven. The show is a masterclass in technique, from the lovely The Virgin with the Pomegranate in black chalk to the studies for the heads of Homer, Virgil, and Dante in pen and brown ink; a glass case shows his drawing materials and where they come from. Many of these drawings belong to the Ashmolean’s own huge collection, while other expected sources, with their hordes of fine drawings, are the British Museum, the Albertina in Vienna—and the Queen.

Just how rich the resources of the Royal Collection are has become clearer since the admirable Queen’s Gallery opened more than fifty years ago, tucked into the corner of Buckingham Palace. Its latest grand exhibition, entirely from its own holdings, is “Canaletto & the Art of Venice.” The Queen’s ownership of this matchless trove is due very largely to one man. Joseph Smith was the British Consul in Venice, and at the same time a collector of—and dealer in—art and books. He accumulated large numbers of canvases by Canaletto, which he sold to King George II in 1762 for £10,000. The paintings in the show are some of Canaletto’s handsomest views of Venice, but they give much more than the tourists’ guide that phrase suggests. It’s true that a painting like The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day would make a much better postcard than many you can buy in Venice today, but the 1726 The Grand Canal Looking South from Ca’ Foscari to the Carità is an exquisite, almost abstract composition. And an array of drawings shows what a fine draughtsman Canaletto was.

“The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” at the National Portrait Gallery has been criticized for its slightly misleading title: there’s only one work each by those two artists. But this show illustrating “the creative encounter between artists and sitters” has plenty of other things worth seeing. Many of them are on loan from the British Museum and the Duke of Devonshire, but the riveting Woman Wearing a White Headdress and six other Holbein portraits come, once again, from the Royal Collection.

Two keenly awaited shows opening on either side of Christmas are devoted to a pair of royal collectors, father and son. “Charles I: King and Collector,” at the Royal Academy from January, will show what a great connoisseur, if not very successful ruler, that ill-fated monarch was; it will be complemented by “Charles II: Art and Power” at the Queen’s Gallery, which opens in December. Both will in turn inspire a Royal Collection Season on BBC television, including a four-part series that tells the story of the collection.

“Raphael: The Drawings” is on view at the Ashmolean through September 3. “Canaletto & the Art of Venice” is at the Queen’s Gallery through November 12. “The Encounter: Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt” is at the National Portrait Gallery through October 22. “Charles I: King and Collector” will open at the Royal Academy of Arts on January 27 and stay on view until April 15, 2018. “Charles II: Art and Power” will be at the Queen’s Gallery from December 8 to May 13, 2018. 

Category: Exhibition