Raphael: The Drawings, a wonderful exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (until September 3), is the first opportunity in Britain to see the primacy of Raphael as a draughtsman since the memorable exhibition held in 1983 at the British Museum. That was organised by John A Gere and Nicholas Turner, and showed drawings from British collections alone, revealing the almost embarrassing wealth of his works in this country.

Some drawings by Raphael have since left Britain, but the lion’s share is still in the UK. Many of them were formerly from the collection of the painter Sir Thomas Lawrence. The exhibition’s team, led by Catherine Whistler, has chosen particularly telling examples from his work outside of the 50 drawings from Oxford, from the Queen, the British Museum, Christ Church, the Louvre, Lille, Frankfurt, Haarlem, Budapest and a private collection in the United States. The exhibition is not to be missed as it gives us a unique opportunity to see, to study and to marvel at Raphael’s path to perfection.

The exhibition has a section on techniques and materials which is very helpful in explaining how these drawings were made. Most useful is the essay in the excellent catalogue by Angelamaria Aceto, “Raphael’s Materials and Techniques”, which observers would find helpful to read before visiting the exhibition.

Detailed photographs help explain the subtlety of the use of the “blind stylus”. This was a technique Raphael employed throughout his life. The artist first used the stylus to make indicative traces of the composition on paper which he could either develop or ignore.

It is sensible, because of the necessary low light levels, to accustom your eye to the subtleties of metal point to be sure to know what you are looking at and for. A particular example, hard to decipher, but very beautiful, is the metal point on pink prepared paper of Ajax and Cassandra, which was recently allocated to the British Museum in lieu of tax. This is clearly dependent in its composition on a classical prototype, and Raphael has managed brilliantly to evoke the impression of classical sculpture, not unlike the metopes of the Parthenon marbles.

Raphael is particularly well known for his religious work and in his early career was at his most inventive when describing compositions on the themes of the Madonna and Child with or without the Infant John. Initially influenced by Perugino, his facial types have a sweet oval angularity and appear demure in both his paintings and his drawings.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection