Ranging in date from the mid-15th century until around 1640, the drawings on display at the National Portrait Gallery’s Close Encounter exhibition all come from British collections and give a fine indication of the riches still here. Some are not strictly speaking portraits – in the section “Drawing from Life” a likeness has been caught by Pontormo in his anxious-looking Study of a Nude Youth and Child, but that is incidental to the purpose of the drawing; as is Leonardo’s Study of a Nude Man, represented as an over-muscled thug. Pisanello’s delicate study of a figure, seen from behind, shows no features, and cannot be called a portrait, but it is a study from life of great refinement and it is a treat to be able to see it.

In fact, all the drawings are fine and some are revelatory. Gozzoli’s Boy with Curly Hair, strongly lit from the right, captures the youth’s adolescent beauty. But Filippino Lippi uses the same technique (metalpoint with white heightening), and does more than take a likeness, in his portrait of Mino da Fiesole. Here there is a real sense of character. as there is too in Annibale Carracci’s swift sketch in pen and brown ink of his friend, the lutenist Giulio Pedrizzano. If this portrait shows self-confidence, his study in red chalk of a crippled beggar has pathos and dignity exceptional for its time. Pathos is also caught in Annibale’s oil sketch Head Study of Bearded Old Man, which strongly contrasts with Rubens’s bravura oil of The Head of an African Man Wearing a Turban.

Italian drawings of great beauty are represented by Perugino, Parmigianino and Salviati. Carlo Dolci’s The Artist’s Shoemaker, from Chatsworth, has great empathy between the artist and the sitter.

German drawings are well represented. Hans Burgkmair’s Wolfgang von Maen, Chaplain to Emperor Maximilian and Dürer’s Henry Parker, 10th Baron Morley lead the way to eight glorious studies from life by Hans Holbein the Younger from the Royal Collection. What wonderful drawings are these and how lucky that so many Holbeins are in Britain. The more often one sees them, the more characterful they appear – this is the court of Henry VIII brought to life. Exceptional in the group exhibited here are the early Woman Wearing a Netherlandish Headdress; one of John More, Sir Thomas More’s only son, shown reading, where the head is finely detailed in contrast to the loose handling of his clothes; and one of John Godsalve: the only drawing at Windsor to be worked up in colours.

This is a fascinating contrast to two drawings by Leonhard Beck, which are characterful but lack refinement. Drawings attributed to Pourbus, Clouet and Dumonstier demonstrate how tough, shifty and self-regarding some of the sitters appear. Lagneau’s Middle-aged Man with Curly Hair rivals Jordaens’s Old Woman Wearing a Ruff and Cap for its delineation of age. The quality and range of the drawings make this an exceptionally interesting and thought-provoking exhibition.

David Scrase is honorary keeper of Italian drawings at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

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