Study from the Roof of Somerset House, Looking East, 2003-04© John Virtue. Photo: The National Gallery, London
Study from the Roof of Somerset House, Looking East, 2003-04© John Virtue. Photo: The National Gallery, London.

It has been particularly thrilling to visit the National Gallery during the last few months; not for the familiar pleasures of the permanent collection but for a room in the basement, reached through labyrinthine passageways, where John Virtue currently has his studio. In this tall and narrow space the National Gallery’s Associate Artist has been preparing a series of extraordinary and monumental canvases showing views of London. Careful observers might have caught glimpses of Virtue on the roof of the National Gallery, or at Somerset House overlooking the Thames, and on the South Bank, sketchbook in hand, drawing Chambers’ great façade. On weekday mornings, over the past two years, regardless of the weather, Virtue has returned to these three favoured vantage points filling the numerous sketchbooks that visitors to the studio find scattered across the floor or piled on the windowsills. From March to early June the Courtauld is host to a selection of 100 of these drawings, which range from broad panoramic views, to reductive outlines of the London skyline, and studies of important details in isolation. They will be shown together with one of the magnificent resultant paintings, a view of Somerset House from the South Bank.

In the drawings the same motif often appears repeatedly, and the viewer is constantly reminded that these are studies, the creative raw material for the finished paintings. Some drawings have notes on meteorological conditions, others bear paint splatters from their use in the studio and even traces of the sweeping, monotone brushstrokes seen in the finished canvases. The paintings themselves are magisterial and compelling but their vast scale is never topographical in its ambitions or self-consciously heroic. The description of Pieter Bruegel as having 'swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again.…onto his canvases and panels’ comes to mind. In Virtue’s case the drawings illustrate that any such organic quality was not effortlessly and intuitively gained but the result of a sustained campaign of observation and study, a gradually accumulated understanding. According to Virtue, "Drawing is the compost from which painting develops", and the remarkable studies on show at the Courtauld offer a powerful account of the artist’s working process and commitment to his subject.

Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen

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

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