Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing

2019 marks five hundred years since the death of Leonardo da Vinci, and the Royal Collection are commemorating this with the exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: A Life in Drawing. I say “the” exhibition but actually, it consists of twelve simultaneous exhibitions in art galleries across the UK, containing 144 drawings from the Royal Collection. It’ll culminate in a large exhibition of 200 drawings at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace in May, then move to the Palace of Holyroodhouse in November.

I’m hoping to visit a few of the locations – find them here – over the next two months but managed to get to the exhibition at Manchester City Art Gallery recently, which was a wonderful selection of twelve drawings that showcase Leonardo’s interest in anatomy and male and female figures. Here are some of my favourites as well as the interesting story of how the drawings found themselves in the Royal Collection…

For someone who produced few complete works, Leonardo produced pages and pages of sketches, drawings and annotations that show his wide-ranging interests and genius, for want of a better word. Relating to his small artistic output, Leonardo once said:

“Great minds often produce more by working less, for with their intellect they search for conceptions and form those perfect ideas which afterwards they merely express with their hands”

He took great delight in observation and working out the world around him.

So how did so many of these drawings get into the Royal Collection? When Leonardo died on May 2nd 1519, he left his drawings and notebooks to his pupil Francesco Melzi. Melzi organised the drawings by their subject and numbered them. These were then passed on to the sculptor Pompeo Leoni via Melzi’s son in 1580. Leoni mounted the drawings on pages of more than two albums, one of which was collected by the English collector the Earl of Arundel by 1630. Both the Earl and his wife were enthusiastic collectors. By 1680, they entered the Royal Collection and into the hands of Charles II – it’s possible that they were presented as a gift by the Earl of Arundel’s grandson. Their movement and rearrangement did not stop here, however, as in the nineteenth century, they were taken out of the album and mounted individually. During the early twentieth century they were stamped with the mark of King Edward VII. Despite their movement, the original and empty album created by Leoni has been kept as well.

The twelve drawings on display in Manchester were absolutely stunning, and there is something really magical about seeing drawings as opposed to completed works, as they seem to show thought patterns and processes. (You can read more about drawings, including one by Leonardo, in my blog posts here and here). However, I did have four favourites, and here they are:

Sketches of a woman, bust length c.1490, metalpoint on pale pinkish-buff paper (RCIN 912513)


I absolutely loved this, and it shows the pose of Lady with an Ermine, which is probably my favourite painting by Leonardo (besides Virgin of the Rocks). The Lady in question was most likely Cecilia Gallerani, who was mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Leonardo’s patron in Milan, between the years 1489 and 1491. There are so many sketches of the woman in slightly amended poses, some with her features indistinct, and I love the idea that even Leonardo, the artistic genius that we see him as, constantly drafted and sketched in order to find the most perfect pose. Even in sketch, the female form is soft and natural and beautiful.

Anatomical drawings: Recto: The foetus, and the muscles attached to the pelvis, pen and ink over red and black chalk & Verso: Studies of the foetus, related internal organs, and the arm, pen and ink, c.1511 (RCIN 919101)

Though Leonardo trained as painter and sculptor, almost certainly in studio of Andrea del Verrocchio, his interests expanded beyond the arts to natural phenomena. He produced the first accurate anatomical drawings, displaying an approach remarkably like that of the empiricism of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, where one sought knowledge for oneself, not second hand and often from the classics.

A woman in landscape c.1517-18, black chalk (RCIN 912581)


I really loved the softness of the drapery in this drawing, the way it looks like it’s blowing in a breeze, and the direct gaze from the figure who points to the distance behind what is in the drawing.

To finish, the first art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote about the great master:

“Leonardo … began many things, and never finished any of them, since it appeared to him to attain to the perfection of art in executing the things which he conceived; seeing that he imagined difficulties so subtle and marvellous, that they could never be expressed by the hands, be they ever so skilful. And so many were his caprices, that, philosophising of natural things, he gave himself to understand the properties of herbs; going on and observing the motions of the heavens, the course of the moon, and the going forth of the sun.”


  1. I visited the exhibition at the National Museum in Cardiff and I must admit I felt a bit disappointed. The works they had didn’t really reflect the breadth of his work and genius.

    • Oh no, that’s such a shame! I really get the impression that they’ve split them up in terms of themes assigned to each location, so we only get one glimpse of each of Leonardo’s interests – which is fine if they are all together in the Royal Collection at the end and people can visit that, but it’s probably quite limiting in terms of the local exhibitions! Manchester was quite good because even though it seemed to focus on figure drawing it had both some anatomical and sketches of figures for particular paintings – though I’d love to see some of his nature drawings!

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