Drawing on memory

How well could you draw an item you'd only seen for five minutes from memory the following day?

unknown, Memory drawing of the handle of a Russian fan, 1911

unknown, Memory drawing of the handle of a Russian fan, 1911

Our latest exhibition focuses on the detailed and highly-finished results of such 'memory drawing' at the School of Art in the years leading up to the First World War. Robert Catterson-Smith, then headmaster, introduced a variety of exercises based upon the idea of students drawing what they'd seen for only a limited period of time from memory, often not until the following day. As he explained in his book Drawing from Memory (1921), published shortly after his retirement:

'the aim in this exercise is not at accuracy of imitation: it is intended to develop invention. The student works from an impression he has gained from a fine example, and where his memory fails, he invents. In this way, the individuality of the student is fostered'.

To us, trying to reproduce an existing design from memory scarcely seems designed to foster originality, but it was seen very much as an innovative approach at the time, when much art education focused on technical expertise rather than creativity. 

The examples in our exhibition are watercolour studies of jewellery and enamelled vases made following student visits to the Museum and Art Gallery. Why not come along and see what they managed to achieve?