Sarah Simblet, Study after Anthony van Dyck's 'The Brazen Serpent', pen and ink and wash on paper, 24 December 1994
© The Artist

Object of the Month - November 2011


Sarah Simblet, Study after Anthony van Dyck's 'The Brazen Serpent', pen and ink and wash on paper, 1994

In 1994 the artist Sarah Simblet was awarded the Richard Ford Award travelling scholarship to Spain while she was an undergraduate at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She spent three months in Madrid from November 1994 to January 1995.

While there she filled a large sketchbook full of drawings of works she saw in the Prado, including this sketch after a famous painting by the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck, often called (1618-20). Van Dyck's painting depicts a dramatic moment from the Old Testament (Numbers XXI, 4-9). The Israelites, having suffered much hardship, spoke out against God and Moses. This led God to punish the people by dropping poisonous fiery snakes from the sky. Begging forgiveness, the Israelites were healed by looking upon a bronze serpent held aloft by Moses.

In Simblet's depiction she has carefully analysed the composition but also drawn using her own fluid style, isolating the group of figures to the right of the painting and leaving out Moses holding the bronze serpent and the background detail. Simblet emphasises the diagonal downward movement of the group to the far right, particularly the woman's body in the foreground, which sinks down with her arms falling limp. In Van Dyck's painting this group creates a triangular formation in the bottom right corner with the praying man crouching on the ground forming the left point of the triangle. In the process of drawing Simblet has realised that her crouching figure is too far to the left, so upsetting this triangular shape, and has made a note to 'move figure back ½ in. from hand of woman'. Simblet has also corrected the positioning of the figure with his arms outstretched on the top left of the composition, moving the head further back.

The Richard Ford Award - a travelling scholarship for artists to study at the Prado in Madrid - was established in 1977 by the art historian and collector Sir Brinsley Ford (1908-1999) with the funds he raised through the sale of his first editions of Goya's print series, The Bullfight (La Tauromaquia). The scholarship was named after his great-grandfather, Richard Ford (1796-1858), who had spent many years in Spain and had published guide books, including Hand-book for Travellers in Spain (1845). The award was set up with the enthusiastic support of Peter Greenham RA, who was the Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools from 1968 to 1985. Other artists whose Ford Award sketchbooks are in the Royal Academy's collection include Jeanette Barnes, John Bartlett, Lesley Hicks and John Whittall, some of whose sketchbooks are currently on display in the Tennant Gallery. The Richard Ford Award continues to award student travelling scholarships to this day.

In correspondence with the Royal Academy in 2011, Simblet wrote: 'The three months I spent in Madrid ... studying at the Prado were such an - extremely - important and formative time for me. I very often think of my time there and of my conversations with Sir Brinsley Ford, and I still have the books on Goya that he signed and gave to me.' In line with the conditions of the Ford Award at the time, Simblet deposited the sketchbook at the Royal Academy on her return from Spain. Another drawing in the same sketchbook is after Goya's Duel with Cudgels.

Simblet went on to complete a doctorate at Bristol University and has since published three books, Anatomy for the Artist (2001), The Drawing Book (2005), which includes reproductions of other pages from this sketchbook, and Botany for the Artist (2010). She teaches at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, University of Oxford.

Study after Anthony van Dyck's 'The Brazen Serpent' can be seen as part of Driven to Draw: Twentieth-century Drawings and Sketchbooks from the Royal Academy's Collection in the Tennant Gallery until 12 February 2012.