by Carla Scarano D’Antonio

The Lightbox in Woking is commemorating the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael in an interesting exhibition inspired by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s passion for the Italian master. The exhibition displays works from the Raphael Collection at Windsor Castle created by the couple that includes original works and also copies of Raphael’s artwork in the form of pictures, photographs, printed reproductions, woodcuts, lithographs, engravings and etchings. They are part of a project that Prince Albert pursued. He commissioned photographers and artists such as Charles Thurston Thompson, George Baxter, Giovanni Battista Franco and Leopoldo Alinari to reproduce Raphael’s work. The collection was subsequently put together by Bernard Bolingbroke Woodward and Sir Richard Rivington Holmes in 1876. It contains over 4,600 pieces and traces the history of reproduction techniques with a special emphasis on photography.

Raphael (1483-1520), ‘Christ’s Charge to Peter’, c. 1514, offset from a drawing in red chalk over stylus. Royal Collection Trust Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

The interesting works on display consistently focus on two main works by Raphael: ‘Christ’s Charge to Peter’ and ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ from Raphael’s series of cartoon designs for Pope Leo X commissioned for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. James I and Charles I bought seven of Raphael’s cartoons. The tapestry of ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ on display was produced by the Mortlake Tapestry Manufactory in the 17th century. The work describes the miracle reported in Luke, Chapter 5, verses 1–10 and features two linked scenes: the apostles as ‘fishers of men’ and Peter and Andrew before Christ. The ships, symbolising the Church, are full of fish, that is, of saved souls. The setting is idyllic sea scenery and yet the picture is dynamic because of the dramatic gesture of Andrew’s open arms and Peter humbly kneeling in front of Christ in the foreground. Although the apostles were unaware of their mission, they show, at the same time, their devotion to Christ.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert worked together to buy and collect Raphael’s works and gave them to one another on birthdays, at Christmas and on wedding anniversaries. They also built up a significant collection of reproductions. Most of them are works inspired by Raphael, such as ‘Raphael’s First Sketch of the Madonna della Sedia’ (1853), an oil on canvas by Johann Michael Wittman, and the ‘Madonna and Child’ (The Colonna Madonna) in enamel on porcelain (1848–58) produced by the Royal Porcelain Manufactory in Berlin.

© The Lightbox

Some impressive original works by Raphael are on display, too. ‘A Woman Standing in Profile: Florentia’ (1514) is a good example of Raphael’s elegant style; the master’s sense of balance and the composure of the figure prevail over the power of the body. His works convey a sense of serenity that is expressed in the juxtaposition of the forms, reminiscent of ancient Roman sculptures and paintings. In this way, he produced an idealised model by taking the most beautiful features from several examples. It was an imagined type of beauty that improved nature without losing any of its vitality. This is linked to the Neoplatonic idea that knowledge is based on a memory of ideas rather than on real objects. Raphael produced a realistic kind of painting which was at the same time idealistic. Nevertheless, his figures convey dynamism and movement in their gestures and in the rendering of the drapery.

Two studies of the tapestry cartoons that are displayed in the exhibition and that are dated 1514 reveal the master’s methodology in working on preparatory drawings for his major works.  He started from the positioning of the figures, which were probably taken from life drawings. The sketches correspond to the cartoons on a smaller scale, which gives us a clear idea of Raphael’s detailed planning and accurate composition. The drawings are produced using sophisticated techniques that include pen and iron-gall ink as well as red chalk over lines made with a stylus. This shows that Raphael considered these drawings to be complete works and important references for his cartoons and therefore for the tapestries.

Prince Albert sent some of the reproductions to European royal households, private collections, museum curators and church authorities in order to promote his project, hoping that he would be allowed to make more copies of Raphael’s works around Europe. The different kinds of reproductions on display show different levels of the two main works under focus. At times they concentrate on specific details, which convey their dramatic characteristics, such as in the figure of St Andrew reproduced in print by Thompson or in the three apostles in the form of an albumen print attributed to Leonilda Caldesi.

The exhibition at the Lightbox is the only one in the UK that commemorates the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, and has been mentioned in the Times.It stimulatingly explores Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s passion for the great Italian Renaissance master, showing important pieces from the Raphael Collection which are part of a pioneering research project that the royal couple pursued during their married life. This project not only involved collecting a large number of copies and reproductions of Raphael’s work, but also involved the use of experimental techniques, such as those applied to produce different kinds of prints and photography that investigate different angles of the great master’s work.

Raphael: Prince Albert’s Passion, The Lightbox, Woking, 10 October 2020 –31 January 2021

Photograph 19/20thC; Thurston Thompson Charles, Raphael Cartoons, Miraculous draught of fishes 19th century