How silverpoint revolutionised art

A new British Museum exhibition, Drawing in Silver and Gold, shows how the flowering of visual naturalism in the 15th century owed its development to this magical medium

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns

British Museum, until 6 December

Marshall McLuhan got it at least half right. The medium may not always be the entire message, but it certainly dictates the kind of message that can be transmitted. This is one lesson of Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, an exhibition at the British Museum that is packed with subtle masterpieces, and as a bonus contains — for those who like such things — two of art’s great studies of dogs.

I might as well start with those: one by Albrecht Dürer from around 1520, ‘Dog resting’, and the other by the later Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius of his own pet, curled up and sleeping in about 1597. Both of these display the virtues of silverpoint. It is a medium that is marvellously well adapted to depicting the surfaces of things — such as the hairs of a canine coat, or the shine of a doggy nose.

It was also a good sketching medium, you could take your little book of prepared paper with you, the metal stylus tucked into the cover. When you saw something worth drawing — such as your own Partridge Dog snoozing rather charmingly or, as Goltzius did on another occasion, one of the relatively newly introduced tobacco plants growing — you could whip out your sketchbook and jot it down with no need to worry about dipping your quill in a pot of ink or sharpening your sticks of chalk.

Thus, and in other ways, silverpoint probably contributed to a revolution in art: the sudden, extraordinary development of visual naturalism in the 15th century. It was a convenient and beautiful way of recording the finest nuances in the way things looked. You can see that done to perfection in a drawing such as the ‘Portrait of a Papal Legate’ (c.1461) by the French artist Jean Fouquet. Every undulation of his swelling jowls and bristle of his eyebrows is delicately caught, as is the tough look in his eye (not an easy man, one would guess, to negotiate with).

Silverpoint is a somewhat approximate term, comparable to bronze in sculpture (which pedants would prefer to term ‘copper alloy’). Other types of metal, including gold and lead, will also leave a mark on a slightly roughened surface such as paper with some bone ash in it. So ‘metalpoint’ is more accurate, although silver seems to have been the favourite.

Once the mark is made, it is hard to remove. But for the same reason it lasts extremely well: the Fouquet drawing still looks pretty much as it must have done when he made it. So, too, does an even earlier work: ‘Portrait of a Man with a Falcon’ by Petrus Christus (c.1445–50), a work that gives the closest attention to such matters as the soft furriness of the brim of the sitter’s hat as opposed to the coarser wooliness of its crown.

Silverpoint was perfect for denoting such things. The luxuriantly silky waves of hair in ‘Head of the Virgin’ from the circle of Rogier van der Weyden (c.1450–70) could be used to advertise shampoo. It is not hard to guess that this kind of silverpoint sketch probably began with Jan van Eyck, the originator of Northern Renaissance naturalism. How else could he have recorded the convincingly real landscapes, plants and objects with which his paintings abound?

Silverpoint was, as the exhibition makes clear, a favourite medium of northern artists in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Italians also took it up, but in Italy — as Hugo Chapman explains in a catalogue essay — silverpoint drawing comes to a full stop with the death of Raphael in 1520. The reason was, probably, that the great and hugely influential Michelangelo never seems to have used it. It was not so good for conveying the three-dimensional power of form in which he was interested.

In time, silverpoint went out of style everywhere. In the north a few artists such as Rembrandt — connoisseurs not just of line but also of different types of line — continued to use it a little into the 17th century. Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was revived by artists such as the Pre-Raphaelites, who were attracted to the precision and naturalism of the era of Van Eyck and Dürer. The exhibition ends with a piece by Bruce Nauman, an unexpected exponent of silverpoint. His 2013 study of his own hands is strangely reminiscent of an amazing sheet by Leonardo from 1489–90 in which he drew a woman’s head and shoulders, again and again, so they blend into an almost abstract phantasmagoria: a supreme virtuoso of line trying to capture the ceaseless flux of reality.

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