Leonardo da Vinci: A Life In Drawing at The Queens Gallery London

This year is the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and there are numerous events worldwide celebrating his life and achievements

Attributed to Francesco Melzi A portrait of Leonardo c.1515 18 - Image Royal Collection Trustc Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Although Leonardo is universally revered as a painter of such masterworks as The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, in fact, he was extremely knowledgeable in many other fields. He investigated sculpture, architecture, anatomy, botany, engineering, town planning, cartography, acoustics, flight, optics, geology and many other subjects, detailing them in some seven thousand pages of handwritten notes, diagrams and drawings that we know of. More may yet come to light – two entire notebooks surfaced in Madrid in 1965. After his death all these manuscripts went through several hands and were eventually split up, some forming the famous Codices.

This exhibition contains 200 drawings from the Royal Collection which is held in trust by the Sovereign for her successors and the nation but not owned by The Queen as a private individual. The Leonardo material was acquired by Charles II and is usually kept at Windsor Castle but now the detailed drawings, diagrams, maps and notes can be seen by the public in London and Edinburgh,

Included is the famous red chalk drawing of Leonardo by his pupil Francesco Melzi together with a newly identified sketch of Leonardo done by an assistant shortly before his death.

Leonardo’s scope was as wide as his drawings focused. There are amazing anatomical drawings of skulls, hands, arms, the heart, and the faces of old people, and even a foetus in the womb. There are spectacular drawings of horses, every muscle accurately and beautifully depicted. There are studies of details used later in paintings. We see the study of faces of the disciples for The Last Supper, the head of St Anne and the exquisite face from the lost painting of Leda.

I was most moved by the pages covered with tiny drawings interlaced with Leonardo’s characteristic mirror script, so obviously pages from the notebook he always had attached to his belt in which he jotted things down for his own purpose, little imagining that they would be pored over and esteemed over 500 years later.

Conservation of such delicate materials over such a long period has always been a problem but now technology has been developed which enables lost and faded material to be seen via ultraviolet imaging, infrared reflectography and X-ray fluorescence. The Royal Collection has published a book Leonardo da Vinci: A Closer Look One reveals not only hidden details invisible to the naked eye but also whether additions were made by a right-handed assistant and details of the paper used – one sheet contains fragments of rope and straw. One can only imagine how fascinated Leonardo would have been to learn of these new scientific advances.


24 May – 13 October 2019 - Exhibition of over 200 drawings
The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London

22 November 2019 – 15 March 2020 - Exhibition of 80 drawings
The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh