Exhibition Archive

John Virtue: London Drawings

9 March — 5 June 2005


"Drawing is the compost from which painting develops" — John Virtue

John Virtue, Study from the roof of the Somerset House looking East, 2003/04. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: National Gallery, London
John Virtue, Study from the roof of the Somerset House looking East, 2003/04. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: National Gallery, London

'London Drawings’ featured more than one hundred new images of the city by John Virtue. These studies, produced during his two-year associate artist appointment at the National Gallery, offered a powerful account of his working process. Created in preparation for a series of monumental paintings, they revealed his commitment to his subject and his profound attachment to the landscape tradition.

On weekday mornings, in all seasons and regardless of weather, Virtue observed and drew the city from the roofs of Somerset House and the National Gallery. On other occasions, as artists including Canaletto had done centuries before, he crossed the river to the South Bank to capture views of the Thames Embankment. The Courtauld display reflected these concentrated campaigns of activity by showing drawings that related to each site together. Three groups of multiple images convey the artist’s sustained observation and his determination to find the best pictorial solution to a motif.

The studies built up a picture of how Virtue prepares for a painting and communicate the excitement of that process. The images ranged from broad panoramic views, to reductive outlines of the London skyline, to studies of important isolated details. Often the same motif appeared in several drawings: Nelson’s column makes a frequent appearance, silhouetted against the sky, as does the Swiss-RE Insurance building. The viewer was constantly reminded that these are working drawings, extracted from Virtue’s sketchbooks; the raw material of the studio. Some drawings even bore paint splatters from their studio use and showed traces of the sweeping, monotone, brushstrokes seen in the finished canvases. One of these immense paintings — an image of Somerset House measuring 243 x 365 cm — was at the heart of the Courtauld exhibition.

John Virtue: London Drawings ran concurrently with John Virtue: London Paintings at the National Gallery. The two shows will be united in an exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, from February to April 2006.

The exhibition was generously supported by the University of Plymouth, where John Virtue is Professor of Fine Art