Down an inconspicuous set of stairs on Dublin’s leafy Merrion Square, something special is happening. When you enter The Drawing School (formerly The Drawing Studio), it can feel as though you are turning the clock back to a time when Yeats and Wilde might have passed you on the street above.
The walls of this art school – museum are adorned with white plaster casts from classical antiquity, busts and figures in contra-posto lounge amongst an intimate maze of arches, while death masks of Napoleon, Dante and the drowned girl of the Seine keep watch over students who are engrossed in their craft. They are all drawing copies of master works – some are drawing torsos, ears, eyes, hands – a legion of copies of the Emperor Nero holds rank in another part of the room – while the sound of pencils on paper fills the air.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a nineteenth century Parisian atelier. The students here are in search of that elusive holy grail – the ability to draw, and draw well. The key to unlocking the secrets of the Great Masters is, according to the school’s founder Samuel Horler, copying their work.
“We know that the masters were highly trained in their craft, but the nature of their training is not so well known. The fact, that’s hidden in plain sight, is that these great artists copied their way to mastery. That was how they trained their hands and eyes, absorbing the lessons and spirit of their predecessors. This gave them the ability to express themselves with an impact that reverberates to this day.”
Courses at the school are meticulously modelled on classical training of the past, using manuals produced by professors of the École des Beaux-Arts, integrating the advice of artists and thinkers across the ages, whose knowledge permeates the class by way of frequent references from the affable and compelling Horler, giving voice to Da Vinci, Ingres, Blake, Ruskin, Matisse and Josef Albers. Students here apply themselves with quiet focus, temporarily sacrificing any individualistic urges for self-expression, giving themselves over to the sanctity of the copy. There is a vibrant undercurrent here – a certain charged excitement in the possibilities of this pursuit, like the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, when certain obfuscated truths come to light.
Despite being something of an outlier in modern artistic education, The Drawing School’s relevance in today’s society is undeniable. It is responding to a present-day need which is growing on the fringes of the art world. There is a hunger for this type of training amongst arts professionals, enthusiasts and students, evidenced by the school’s clientele – designers, architects, animators, tattoo artists, educators, as well as complete beginners eager to learn – who flock here to sharpen their pencils and their eyes. I speak to Gráinne, an architect, during the coffee break, as a murmur takes hold of the room, and students and teaspoons stir.
“As an architect, I need to be able to visualise my concepts and describe them on paper. Within a couple of months The Drawing School has enhanced my powers of observation and the proficiency with which I can execute ideas, and convey them to clients. It’s such an invaluable skill.”
For those who wish to dip their toes into this subterranean world of art, the school offers part-time courses in The Discipline of Drawing, introducing students of all levels, whether beginner or advanced, to the fundamentals of draughtsmanship – how to hold a pencil properly, how to draw a good line, how to observe light and shadow the way Manet did. Those who would rather dive in head-first can sign up to a full-time programme, intensively following the pedagogy and stages of progression seen in historical institutions, complete with cast drawing and life drawing from the nude model.
In the new year a Drawing Club will launch, which promises to be a hub for artistic discovery, a space for collective endeavour and exploration where like minds can gather in pursuit of artistry, calling to mind the Café Guerbois and the Bauhaus. Horler plans to open the school’s extensive collection of master works to members, who will be invited to copy any works of their choosing for self-directed learning. Plans for exhibitions of Drawing Club students’ copies are also underway in the school, which has previously played host to a surprising miscellany of cultural events; art and photography exhibitions, music, a regular Sunday service called “The Temple of Historical History”, heightening the singularity of this unmissable Dublin gem.
Part-time and Full-time Courses can be booked online at drawing.ie
Visit the school by appointment only.