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In the company of Leonardo

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

Something magic happens when I’m in the company of Leonardo da Vinci. There’s a frisson of energy around me and a crackle of electricity in the air. It’s the same sort of feeling I get when I’m standing and looking at myself in the giant Pier glass in the sugared-almond-of-a-library at Kenwood House. I think about all the people that have stood in front of it before me, looked at themselves in that glass too and temporarily shared that small part of a world reflected in it. From the very grand to the very ground. What could that piece of glass tell me, what stories does it have?

What is Leonardo telling me?

Then, that spark of realisation as a fizz runs up your spine after a few minutes of standing in front of a drawing, painting or a cartoon that has touched the hand of da Vinci and is created from that hand. HE stood in this space and looked at this too. HE created that and now I’m looking at it; contemplating it, absorbing it. Working it out. Being moved by it.

Maybe that’s why so many of us are drawn to galleries, exhibition spaces or anywhere a piece of art is displayed for that matter. Like a finite space reflected in the mirror, you can stand and look at a painting of, say, a Merry Monarch in the National Portrait Gallery, knowing unequivocally that that very monarch stood in front of it too. You share that very same space hundreds of years apart and yet there they are with you and in your presence for that time. Sometimes it’s easier to draw yourself away but sometimes that magnetic pull of history, that sense of sharedness that comes from somewhere deep; innate and intoxicating, is just too damned seductive. And before you know it, they’re turning off the lights and sweeping you up with the discarded gallery maps and the odd disoriented tourist who has become detached from their group but who will doggedly continue their oxymoronic quest to look through a gadget screen and photograph the thirty ‘must see’s’ whilst doing anything but….

As you meander your way through the gallery spaces amongst the fellow gobsmacked, you’re struck by how this man’s mind never stopped. From studies of draping fabric for monumental pieces like ‘Madonna of the Rocks’ to scientific depictions of anatomy, the exhibition can only ever scratch the surface of the output of Leonardo’s works. His inventions aren’t here, as the exhibition focuses on a particular folio of works and a Treatise of Anatomy that was only published in 1900, itself offering the incredible fact that Leonardo’s anatomical drawings had little to no impact whatsoever on medical studies. I was told to be quiet in front of one of these anatomical drawings. You know the beautiful little drawing of the unborn foetus? Well, that one. An American tourist asked me about the backwards left-handed writing Leonardo used to make his notes and we enthusiastically discussed how remarkable the drawings were and how excited he was to be able to see them. Should that not be encouraged rather than shut down? It was humiliating and unnecessary. Do we still have to be mouse quiet in galleries? Should healthy and brand-new enthusiasm for an object that is over 500 years old not be positively encouraged? That kind of behaviour by an over-zealous contingent of room guides (and I’m afraid to say in my experience they are to be found aplenty at the Queens Gallery) only serves to reinforce a decades-old gallery experience stereotype. In an age when children are invited to lay on the floor of the National Gallery to draw the wonderful things they see and whizz down steel tubes in the Tate, it is high time we encourage people to enthusiastically engage not only with the art but equally importantly with each other in gallery spaces.

And that drawing resonated with me. I’ve never had children. Leonardo managed to create something my body has never quite worked out how to. He created a small, perfect and eternal life. That peaceful little body still cradled and protected in its mother’s womb had me experiencing a dichotomy of emotions. The ephemeral, transient nature of life and the fact of the reality that that little human never made it into the physical world filled me with sadness, for them and for me. And yet Leonardo has made them immortal. They will forever exist through his perfect rendering of their little form with such startling verisimilitude that it was one of those ‘hard to pull myself away’ moments. Life, death, mortality and immortality in one tiny drawing. Sometimes art just does that. You don’t need a degree in this stuff to be moved by it, to enjoy it, to have an opinion on it. It’s all valid, because art is what it is to be human.

Yes, I purposely left out the ‘a Leonardo…’ in my first sentence. Because when you’re in front of a piece of art from the hand of Leonardo da Vinci, then he is with you too. It’s not a Leonardo, not a da Vinci. It is just, well. Himself. Because you’re not just looking at piece of paper, a drawing in chalk or a canvas with oil paint on it.

You are in his very presence.

Leonardo da Vinci ‘The drapery of a kneeling figure’ c.1491-4

Brush and black ink, white heightening, on pale blue prepared paper

Royal Collection

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘The Foetus in the Womb’, c.1511.

Black chalk, sanguine, pen, ink wash on paper. Royal Collection.

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