Drawing connections

Drawing by Gregory Watt of a painting of a man's head by Van Dyck, nd. c. 1793 [MS 3219/7/Part 3/48]

Drawing by Gregory Watt of a painting of a man’s head by Van Dyck, nd. c. 1793
[MS 3219/7/Part 3/48]

I recently visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see the free exhibition ‘Turning to See: From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud. Curated by John Stezaker’, which I thoroughly enjoyed. On display were an array of portraits by a variety of famous names in art history.

The exhibition’s centrepiece is Anthony van Dyck’s masterly last self-portrait purchased for the nation in 2014. Inspired by what I had seen, I wanted to find out whether Archives and Collections at the Library of Birmingham holds any material relating to the artists featured in the exhibition.

Anthony van Dyck via Gregory Watt

After a quick search of our catalogues I found an intriguing pen and ink sketch (MS 3219/Part 3/48) by Gregory Watt, son of the famous inventor and engineer James Watt.

The subject is a painting of a man’s head by van Dyck. The exact date of the sketch is unknown but we believe it to be from around 1793. At this time Gregory Watt was a student at the University of Glasgow. He had many skills (as well as being an accomplished drawer) and won numerous prizes in literary work and mathematics. He also studied mineralogy and geology in his free time.

Which van Dyck artwork did Gregory see? Where was it located? Did he see the original or a copy?  For the time being I wasn’t able to delve deeper but perhaps the archive holds further clues.

Further sketches by Gregory are held in the archive from his travels in Europe where he pursued his geological interests. Sadly Gregory suffered from poor health for most of his life and died at the age of 27.

Edward Burne-Jones and Augustus John via Arthur Gaskin.

Also featured in the exhibition are works by the famous Birmingham artist Edward Burne-Jones and a painting by the Welsh portrait painter Augustus John.

I was delighted to find that the Papers of the Gaskin Family held at Birmingham Archives and Collections contain letters to Arthur Gaskin by both artists, as well as a range of other illustrious names from the art world (MS 2945/1/3/1-16). These include Roger Fry, Philip Webb, Eric Gill, Georgiana Burne-Jones, Albert Rothenstein and William Morris.

Letter to Arthur Gaskin from Augustus John, 21 December 1916 [MS 2945/1/3/6]

Letter to Arthur Gaskin from Augustus John, 21 December 1916
[MS 2945/1/3/6]

Arthur Gaskin taught at the Birmingham School of Art from 1885 to 1903 and was headmaster of the Vittoria Street School of Jewellery and Silversmithing until 1924. He was also an illustrator, painter and jewellery designer. The archive shows that he had a strong network of artistic friends and colleagues.

The two letters in the archive from Augustus John dated 1916 focus on the delivery of two cartoons presumably by John to Gaskin. Augustus writes ‘I am naturally most delighted and moved to know with what sympathy my cartoons have been received in Birmingham’.

Letter to Arthur Gaskin from Edward Burne - Jones [MS 2945/1/3/14 ]

Letter to Arthur Gaskin from Edward Burne – Jones
[MS 2945/1/3/14 ]

The letter from Edward Burne-Jones is not dated and it appears from the letter that the two had a closer friendship. Burne-Jones invites Gaskin to visit him in London and also comments that ‘writing is still difficult’ for him because of his ‘unlucky arm’, suggesting that he may have had an injury at the time.

These were just a few of the connections I began exploring, but feel free to explore the wealth of material held in Birmingham Archive and Collections through our online catalogue. The ‘Turning to See’ exhibition is also well worth a visit and is on until the 4th September.

Emma Hancox
Archivist

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