Five figures are rummaging through a pile of bales and objects, a bearded old man at centre wearing spectacles and examining a lamp.

Research project

Illuminating Renaissance drawings from northern Europe

Supported by

International Music and Art Foundation

Key project information

Duration

February 2021 – December 2025

Contact details

Email: ohorbatsch@britishmuseum.org

Supported by

International Music and Art Foundation

What are the origins of and developments within Netherlandish drawings – how were these early sheets made, used and understood in the 15th and 16th centuries?

This project, Early Netherlandish drawings, is undertaking a focused study of drawings from the Low Countries (present-day Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands) in the British Museum collection from around 1440−1600. In this period, the Low Countries emerged as the economic and artistic powerhouse of northern Europe. The surviving drawings are a valuable record of creativity and exchange, and shed light on artistic techniques, style and studio practice.

Using curatorial and conservation expertise along with scientific analysis, this research will chart the origins and development of drawing in the region. The drawings document the study of nature and the sensitive rendering of objects from life, which are both defining features of northern European art. The earliest examples are from workshops of manuscript illuminators and panel painters. At the dawn of the 16th century, through travel and trade, new styles were incorporated into local traditions. Late examples show increasing complexity as drawings became intended as standalone objects for collectors.

About the project

The collection of early Netherlandish drawings at the British Museum includes examples by Rogier van der Weyden, Lucas van Leyden, Pieter Bruegel and Hendrick Goltzius. By examining these renowned artists alongside lesser-known masters, anonymous sheets and workshop copies, this project will produce a comprehensive account of drawing in the region. 

The drawings were made using a variety of media, including metalpoint, ink, chalk and watercolour; drawn on paper, prepared grounds or vellum. Close, systematic study and scientific analysis will investigate materials, media and pigments used.

This project will investigate the range of subjects and functions of drawings in the Low Countries, which can be divided into three categories:

  • As important tools for artistic training, where drawings captured preparatory designs for works of art in other media such as paintings, stained glass, tapestry series and prints.
  • As records of artists' observations of the world in their drawings from life, which ranged from nature and figure studies to landscapes.
  • As expressions of the imagination, where artists invented new compositions on paper and created standalone works intended to rival paintings for a new audience of collectors. 

This project will attempt to deduce the social functions of drawings by studying drawn copies as evidence of artistic exchange. The patronage, afterlife and collecting of drawings are rarely documented, but several surviving examples offer insights into their broader social and cultural significance.

Aims

The aims of this project are to: 

  • Re-examine the history and importance of drawings from the Low Countries 1440−1600 in the context of wider research on drawings from other parts of Europe.
  • Research and conserve a representative group of 180 drawings selected from the collection of over 1,000 sheets. 
  • Scientifically analyse a small group of these drawings to learn more about the composition and paper structure, as well as about techniques, materials and pigments.
  • Create an exhibition of the drawings at the British Museum and communicate the findings of this research in an accompanying exhibition book and symposium.

Meet the team

Olenka Horbatsch next to a drawing.

Olenka Horbatsch

Principal Investigator
Department of Prints and Drawings
British Museum 

Rebecca Snow.

Rebecca Snow

Conservation Co-Lead
Department of Collection Care 
British Museum 

Samantha Taylor.

Samantha Taylor

Conservation Co-Lead
Department of Collection Care 
British Museum 

Emma Turner.

Emma Turner

Conservation Co-Ordinator
Department of Collection Care
British Museum

Joanne Dyer.

Joanne Dyer

Scientist
Department of Scientific Research
British Museum

More Team

Project supporter

Project supporter 

Supported by

International Music and Art Foundation logo

Established in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, in 1987, the International Music and Art Foundation believes that the greatest legacy to future generations is art and music. It contributes to recognised and established organisations in the performing arts, including opera companies, symphony orchestras, chamber music ensembles and ballet and theatre companies. It also supports architectural restorations, art conservation and museums as well as research and publications about the history of art.