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The rare Titian drawing that the UK is fighting to keep

19 November 2016

On 20 September the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced that a temporary export bar had been placed on a Study of a Kneeling Man by Titian. Purchased by an overseas buyer from the collection of the Earl of Harewood for £4.4 million (excluding VAT), it will leave these shores for its new home after 19 December unless a UK buyer comes forward to match the price.

The drawing is a rarity. Although his career spanned seven decades, fewer than 50 drawings reasonably attributable to Titian (c. 1488–1576) survive. By contrast, we have some 460 sheets from his much shorter-lived contemporary Raphael and around 600 from the equally long-lasting Michelangelo, who we know systematically to have destroyed his drawings. The large majority of survivals from Titian’s hand are in public collections (including six sheets in the UK), while this is one of only a handful still in private hands (including two others in the UK, in the Devonshire Collection), and – depending on one’s attributional generosity – the only one executed in chalk.

Traditionally this dearth of surviving drawings by the master has been explained by the assertion that Titian did not draw much, preferring rather to paint his compositions directly onto the canvas without preparing them on paper first. This depends on a tradition originating in 16th-century critical discourse, most significantly promulgated by the Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari, whose biased devaluation of Venetian art rested primarily on its failure to follow Tuscan precepts of drawing. Scholarly consensus today, however, is shifting away from this received wisdom, as careful consideration of the evidence demonstrates that Titian and his Venetian colleagues relied extensively upon drawing, albeit in different and less systematic ways than their Central Italian contemporaries. And in cases such as this, it is always helpful to remember just how many drawings have been lost.

The Harewood sheet was surely one of a substantial number of figure studies for an altarpiece depicting the Pentecost that Titian executed for the high altar of the later suppressed church of Santo Spirito in Isola on the eponymous island in the Venetian lagoon. Commissioned in 1529 or 1530, it was installed only in 1541. For reasons that are unclear, the paint started flaking off almost immediately, resulting in a protracted lawsuit against the artist which forced him to supply a replacement. This panel was delivered around 1550, is now in the Venetian church of the Salute, and lamentably – if understandably – counts among Titian’s least exciting works. The kneeling figure of Saint Peter on the right of the Salute picture is a slightly altered and reversed version of the Harewood study, which was surely made for the first, lost altarpiece. We do not know what this picture looked like, but a 1545 altarpiece of the same subject in the Accademia, Venice, by Polidoro da Lanciano probably derives from it and includes a variation on the kneeling apostle. The drawing, however, remains our only authentic document of this major lost picture.

More than that, it is a compelling drawing in its own right. Mainly a drapery study, it contains some breath-taking passages of fine modelling that fuse stumped chalk and white heightening. Characteristically, these are combined with rough, angular strokes of the chalk, often made with a sharpened edge, that render the folds along the back and left shoulder as well as the bend in the right knee. It is in this combination of subtle naturalism and expressive suggestion that we recognise Titian’s hand, and which aligns it with such great exemplars of his draughtsmanship as the British Museum Saint Peter (inv. 1895,0915.823) and the Uffizi Saint Bernardino/Drapery Study (inv. 1713F).

Interestingly, a woodcut of the Stigmatisation of Saint Francis, designed by Titian and probably cut by Niccolò Boldrini around 1530, employs a close variation of the Harewood figure for its protagonist. Its design is radical in that Francis is seen from behind – an idea unpalatable for patrons of large-scale works but easy to use in a print, and which Titian at the time was introducing in the form of secondary figures not only in the Pentecost but also the Vatican Saint Nicholas altarpiece (c. 1520–mid 1530s) and the lost Votive Picture of Andrea Gritti (1531), for which the Uffizi Drapery Study was preparatory.

This is typical of how Titian’s designs for woodcuts would reflect and inform narrative and compositional ideas that he was simultaneously developing in drawing and painting. Together with the woodcut, the Harewood drawing thus forms a fragmentary but invaluable document, not only of a lost painting, but of a sophisticated cross-media methodology that we are still coming to grips with.