painting by memory

We found ourselves in an odd situation the other day. We went to see a major travelling exhibition, Shakespeare to Winehouse, which has come to Australia from the National Portrait Gallery, London. We knew that there was no photography allowed, but I was taken aback when the security guard asked me to put my pencil away as there was no drawing allowed in the exhibition either.*

Apart from being very annoyed I was at rather a loss because sketching is my favourite way of recording exhibitions. After going through the exhibition we beat a quick retreat to the coffee shop where I furiously wrote notes on the paintings/ photographs that caught my attention. Did I mention that you couldn’t even take notes in pencil in the gallery?

However, after we got back home, it dawned on me that I could at least try and paint some of the works from memory – it’s hard to keep a determined artist down.

This is a first for me and I can’t say that I had prepared myself for the experience. Nevertheless I managed two acrylic studies, neither of which give a terribly accurate rendering of their sources, but it was fun. (And yes, I do know that I can download all the paintings online. It was just more fun doing it this way).

Drawn from memory: partially completed, Richard Avedon, 1960, photograph of WH Auden in New York (NPG P614) – acrylic paint on collaged cardboard
Drawn from memory: Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829, unfinished portrait of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (NPG 7032)

If you are interested in 15 minutes of relaxing video you can watch me paint this study by following this link.

  • I have confirmed with the lending institution that both photography and sketching are allowed in their gallery. It just seems that our local host organisation has gotten all draconian. I don’t know why as so far they haven’t gotten around to replying to my complaint email. I will update this if and when I hear from them.
  • Shortly after posting this blog I heard from the local gallery to say that the restrictions were, in part, to do with copyright issues for living artists. Also that high visitor numbers in their relatively smaller rooms made photography and sketching a problem with obstruction (my words). They are at least holding out a ray of hope for the sketchers. Apparently, they are monitoring visitor numbers to identify quieter periods when sketching might be allowed.
  • The full text of both replies can be found on my Instagram account @leonieandrewsart.
Detail of Wellington’s head.

16 Comments

    1. Good for you for trying it from memory. And glad lending institution said photography and sketching allowed in gallery. We live in a world where so many increasingly want to control everything around them. I get it. So much seems to be out of control, but this?!!! Perhaps human beings have always been this way or perhaps we have more access to news of how other behaving, amplifying the matter. Just sad all around. Beautiful work regardless and thanks for sharing!

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      1. Thank you! I have just heard from the institution concerned and they say it is to do with copyright and an unexpectedly high visitor numbers in their relatively small space. On a positive note, they are looking to see if they can offer a quiet period where sketchers will be allowed into the exhibition. I hope so.

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  1. I was quite shocked when I saw your first post about this – the whole situation felt wrong, treating viewers as potentially destructive children. The answer about space made some sort of sense, but it still felt oddly off-putting. I could understand they didn’t want people setting up a stool and settling down, but making quick notes as you stand and walk seems pretty inoffensive!

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    1. I think we all realise that Australian institutions are very conservative when it comes to visitor interactions with art. From my perspective, there could of been a lot more thought given to the whole staging of the exhibition upfront. This show has been many years in preparation and it was also delayed by COVID for nearly another year. So it strikes me as odd that there isn’t evidence of more forethought in the mounting of the exhibition. Apart from this paid show there is a free access general exhibition. Was it possible that more space could have been allocated? They seem to be surprised by the visitor numbers. Obviously it’s not possible to sort this out once the show opens. I’m just surprised that it seems that visitor interaction appears to have almost be forgotten and I can scarcely credit that one of our major institutions, (always strapped for cash), seem to have missed what seems to me to be fund raising and promotional activities.

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  2. Oh, you had to be like thoe court room artists who arent allowed to sketch in the courtroom, but from memory. I think that museum curator was being what we call “A Job’s Worth” (it’s more than my job’s woth to let you….etc). A little bit of power, maybe it was the only pleasure in their job??

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  3. A guard stopped me from sketching a Rembrandt that was on loan at The Virginia Museum of Fine Art once too then I found the same painting online. I was alone in the gallery with the Rembrandts most of the time and when someone else came in I sat down so I wasn’t blocking another person’s view, and was ok sketching one day but when I went back a second day I guess there was another person watching on the security cameras and they told the guard to stop me. Probably someone who can’t draw and doesn’t want others to draw either. I was using pencil which is the only thing allowed in there. The museum doesn’t support artists when they pull crap like that. Weird that the same thing happened to you half a world away. I thought it was only the wet blankets in Richmond.

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    1. Sadly no. There are plenty of wet blankets all over the world. I had no problem at all sketching paintings in the Treasure Gallery at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Indeed another sketcher I know was painting in watercolour in there and at the Louvre I was able to draw in pen and ink with a security guard sitting next to me and my husband just looking on. No problems.

      We also are pencil only all over Australia. So annoying.

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      1. All I can think of is insurance. As you no doubt read in my post I recently had a discussion with the National Portrait Gallery of Australia because they wouldn’t allow ANY sketching in a loan exhibition from the National Gallery of London. I emailed both institutions and the people in the UK said they had no bans on sketching and it was the decision of the people in Australia. The Australian people said that sketchers would get in the way of other visitors because the exhibition space was small. And you couldn’t take photos for the same reason. Sadly, I have only seen that exhibition once because I couldn’t sketch.

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      2. Yeah, that sounds like a lame excuse to me. As if an artist who goes there to sketch is going to damage the painting. Good for you on writing to them about it.
        I heard that in Atlanta there were so many artists sketching Rembrandts at the High museum that people couldn’t get near them. I don’t know if their policy is different or what. I’m not trying to fight the system. I quit the art world game because it’s FUBAR from top to bottom and the people at the top are the ones I blame but all I can do is complain on my blog.

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