On the fourth floor of the British Museum, in a quiet corner far from the mummies and the Rosetta Stone, is an unremarkable door. Most visitors simply walk past it. I first opened the door a few years ago, clutching a piece of paper with some scribbled directions. I was certain the guards would rush over to explain that this area was closed to the public.
Instead, after a brief ID check, I was ushered into a room with a vaulted glass ceiling, elegantly carved gallery and cabinets stacked with cardboard boxes. Those boxes hold Britain's national collection of prints and drawings. Two million prints and 50,000 drawings are stored here, from a Virgin and Child etching by Rembrandt to a drawing of a philosopher by Michelangelo. The museum describes it as one of the world's top three collections of its kind.
It is London’s most democratic and accessible collection of masterpieces. But no one I have mentioned it to has heard of it
But unlike most other art collections, this one is not locked away. Instead, the British Museum’s Study Room is London's most democratic and accessible collection of masterpieces. Any member of the public can walk in and ask to see the works. Visitors don't need a membership card, a reader's pass or a letter supporting their research project. They don't have to keep a safe distance from the art to prevent the alarm from going off.
But no one I have mentioned it to has heard of it. In fact, people tend to express surprise that a place like that even exists – a place where anyone can be granted a rendezvous with Rembrandt.
London has many secret sanctuaries, but none are quite as magical as its hidden study or reading rooms. Many museums will have one; some are very grand indeed. With its chandeliers and ornate ceiling, the reading room of the National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum could be mistaken for a ballroom.
On a more intimate scale, the genteel reading room at the London Library in St James's Square has attracted book lovers for almost two centuries. AS Byatt honoured it in the opening scene of her best-selling novel Possession: "It was shabby but civilised, alive with history but inhabited also by living poets and thinkers who could be found squatting on the slotted metal floors of the stacks, or arguing pleasantly at the turning of the stair." The prints and drawings room at the British Museum is filled with a similar atmosphere – a sense of creative correspondence across the centuries.
London has many secret sanctuaries, but none are quite as magical as its hidden study or reading rooms
At the time of my first visit, I was working on my second novel. One of my characters was an art student in 1930s London and I was trying to find a way of expressing the era’s extreme contrasts through his art. On the one hand, the 1920s and early ’30s were years of creative innovation and great optimism. At the same time, the rise of fascism cast a dark shadow.
Since the character was young and penniless, I was particularly interested in linoprint, a cheap, accessible medium that encouraged experimentation. However, prints are usually not given much space in museums, where the focus tends to be on crowd-pulling paintings. Where in London could I find those elusive smaller works? The British Museum’s Study Room.
I first requested a selection of prints from the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, founded in Pimlico in 1925. The Grosvenor School is not as well-known as the German Bauhaus or the Italian Futurists but its artists shared a similar fascination with urban technology, new materials and sliced-up perspectives. Their lino prints chronicled the exhilaration, speed and energy of London life.
The archivist returned with a set of white gloves and the prints, the most striking of which were two linocuts from 1934 by the Grosvenor School artist Cyril Power, The Tube Train and Exam Room. Studying a work of art in your own time, at a desk, is a very different experience from looking at it in a museum or a gallery: for a start, it is much closer to how the artists themselves would have viewed the work.
I was instantly drawn into the images, which decades after their creation still felt fresh, immediate and relevant. Sure, the passengers in The Tube Train wore top hats and held newspapers rather than phones. But the packed-in claustrophobia, the way the passengers sat pinned into their seats as their carriage hurtled through the dark, was recognisable to any modern-day London commuter.
Visitors may ask to see any print or drawing – apart from a fragile sketchbook by Italian Renaissance painter Jacopo Bellini
According to the museum's website, visitors may ask to see any print or drawing – apart from a fragile sketchbook by the Italian Renaissance painter Jacopo Bellini, which can only be viewed by special request. But relatively few people seem to find their way here. Conservators are probably grateful for that: even as I was appreciating the 1930s prints, I knew I was harming them, if ever so slightly. Every time they are taken from their protective folders and exposed to light, the prints fade a little – imperceptibly at first, more noticeably over decades.
But there is no substitute for looking at an original. No screen image can quite replace the time-travel feel of being in the presence of the work itself.
Having travelled to the 1930s, I was struck by the idea that I could venture even further back in time. I asked the archivist if I could see Michelangelo's ink drawing of the philosopher.
The sketch shows a bearded, cloaked man holding a roundish object: perhaps a rock, a crystal or a skull. That the drawing was unfinished made it more interesting. Was the figure an old man contemplating mortality, an alchemist weighing a fresh lump of gold, a philosopher turning over the stone of wisdom?
I looked at it until the archivist told me they were about to close for the day.
On my way home, I was caught up in London's rush hour. But instead of my usual frustration over the crowded tube, I felt a flicker of modernist love for this hurtling metal beast. And back at my desk, struggling with my manuscript, I decided to see Michelangelo's drawing as a metaphor for creative work: all of us turning over this mysterious thing in our hands, interpreting it in different ways.
Since that first visit, I have gone back to the study room several times, usually to look at works from the period I am researching. Very occasionally, I ask for the Michelangelo drawing. Not too often: I know that it prefers to be in the dark. But I also like to think that, every now and then, it enjoys being looked at.
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