Eric Coombes: Drawing, tradition and Peter Clossick

Despite the best efforts of the state-art establishment visual intelligence survives, argues Eric Coombes

In 1941, Augustus John contributed A Note on Drawing (from which I quoted a few words in the previous issue) to a book edited by Lillian Browse, containing reproductions of his own drawings. John records his sense of good fortune in having been a student at the Slade, and thereby spared an oppressive training in google_ad_height = 90; ‘the substitute for drawing’ prevailing in other places, notably

​ the Royal College of Art or its immediate precursor at South Kensington.  This substitute was ‘Stumping’: ‘An innovation having no roots in tradition, it pretended to provide the student with a means of representing form without risking the use of a line. … the student was instructed to copy

in the endeavour to find and articulate an intelligible visual ordering in what is drawn. This endeavour cannot bypass the decisions, the revisions of decisions and, indeed, the mistakes and attempted corrections, which are brought to judgement in the determinacy of line. To eliminate this essential feature of visual thought is to render drawing mindless and deny its very nature. It was clearly important—to invoke the second theme—that this ‘substitute for drawing’ had ‘no roots in tradition’, whereas at the


Slade drawing was

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understood and taught as the unifying central strand in ‘the great Tradition’, and students were encouraged to study the Old Masters—a policy whose fruits are illustrated in this book by the astoundingly accomplished drawing after Watteau which google_ad_client = "ca-pub-3967079123942817"; won John a prize awarded by Tonks in 1897. The ‘great Tradition’ was defined by a canon, in which the practice of the masters provided models of drawing as a medium of thought.

It does not, for present purposes, matter greatly if John was exaggerating (as he probably was), or being to some extent unfair, in his eloquent denunciation of what went on in South Kensington. What does matter is that he intuitively understood drawing as essentially an exercise of thinking, which cannot be reduced to a mere technique, still less to a fail-safe technique. The gesture of drawing a line is an action integral to the draughtsman’s thinking, and the trace remaining is alive with the meaning with which that action imbues it: the risk of not immediately getting it quite right is just the risk that attends and is inseparable from thought itself. To eliminate that risk is to withdraw the mind from its internal relationship to drawing—that is, the relationship in which drawing is thinking, not merely the product of thinking—leaving nothing but an inert routine: a ‘substitute for drawing’.

It is misconceived, therefore, to take the ‘skill’ of drawing to be merely

a technique, merely the means to the end of producing a certain kind of artefact, which might, in principle, be produced, equally well, or more conveniently, by some other technique. Something like this misconception must underlie claims that photography, for example, can be considered a form of drawing, and ‘Stumping’ as described by John could almost be described (with qualifications unimportant in the present context) as a pointlessly laborious procedure for manufacturing substitutes for photographs.

In a previous issue Dr Selby Whittingham cited Finberg as complaining in 1910 that ‘the only kind of training that is provided for English art students is training in this capacity of reproducing objects of sight accurately.’. Finberg may well have had good reasons for complaint, but his actual words here, if taken perfectly literally, make no sense. Drawings, of their very nature, cannot possibly ‘reproduce’ ‘objects

of sight’ (accurately or


inaccurately) except,

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perhaps, in the limiting case where the sole ‘object
of sight’ is itself a drawing. Now as in the past, however, visual representation is often naïvely described in this way. Even so sophisticated and powerful a thinker as Ruskin is guilty of this confusion, most obviously (if inconsistently) in The Elements of Drawing – although what is there posited as the object to be copied is an appearance, incoherently understood as an array

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of coloured shapes, already a kind of picture of the scene to be represented. But an appearance is of a different ontological order from a picture and is logically uncopyable by

of as deviations from a naturalistic

desultory movements of Carol’s dozing mind, projecting an unresolved image of water, as she dreams of being afloat and drifting away. Here it is as if the painter seeks to incorporate the subjectivity of the model in the construction of the painting.

This empathic relationship with his human subjects is revealed in many of Clossick’s paintings. One I particularly admired when I saw it some months ago at the Anna Lovely Gallery is Sophia, a tender, sympathetically observed image of vulnerability, which seems to me to have fully achieved that state of ‘stable resolution’. This painting, in my judgement, is one which exemplifies the virtue and individuality of Clossick’s sensibility especially strongly. It also, incidentally, is one where he seems even closer to Bomberg than to Auerbach or Kossoff. The quality of sympathy is especially important in an earlier painting, the portrait of Trevor Aston, who was a close friend of the painter, a troubled man of some distinction whose life ended tragically.

In conclusion, I return to my starting point in the thought that Clossick seeks to ‘retain or reconstitute the early impulse of drawing in the final painting’. The technique of ‘thick’ painting seems to facilitate that, since it allows for redrawing or additional drawing, even at a late stage, by working freely into the un-dried or semi-dried paint. This engenders a quality of directness equivalent to the directness achieved with ‘drawing materials’. It also accommodates the registration of varying levels of determinacy in the depiction of different elements in the depicted scene, corresponding to the different levels or kinds of attention occurring in our actual experience.

achieved ease of comprehension. But I think it worth adding a brief postscript about sculpture. For of course, the discipline of drawing is as vital to sculpture as to painting, especially if we make a small and natural extension of the denotation of ‘drawing’.

It is no longer necessary to enter art galleries to observe directly the consequences of the abandonment of drawing. For some time, public spaces have displayed ‘substitutes for sculpture’, to adapt Augustus John’s phrase, in the form of objects made from body casts, by Marc Quinn and other culprits. In addition to this we now have, in the technology of three-dimensional scanners, another ‘substitute for drawing’, the misuse of which is already polluting public spaces with parodies of sculpture, by such as Mark Wallinger. These ‘sculptors’ are completely untouched by any understanding, intellectual or intuitive, of sculptural form. The very notion seems beyond the grasp of them or their supporters. Wallinger’s ‘sculptures’, for example, have all the sculptural energy of petrified blancmange.

Eric Coombes
The Jackdaw