Raffaello Sanzio, called Raphael, Head of a Young Apostle, on sale 5 December in London.


LONDON - Paper, it seems, is gold. At least it is right now, in my line of work. In between its worldwide travels I have had a couple of opportunities to handle what is undoubtedly the most beautiful and important work of art to pass through the Old Master department since my arriving here nearly ten years ago: Raphael’s Study for the head of a young apostle, an auxiliary cartoon for his last great masterpiece The Transfiguration.

Albrecht Dürer, St Jerome in his study, 1514 
'The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein' at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Without a hint of exaggeration I can say that this drawing, in black chalk, was pivotal to the history of art; wildly different to all that had gone before it, and shaping all that was to come. Though executed in 1516 one could be forgiven for thinking it executed a hundred years later at the height of the Baroque. With the commission for the Transfiguration Raphael effectively defined the visual language that was to underpin western art for several centuries. And when something of this magnitude is consigned for sale the excitement penetrates every nook of the numerous conjoined buildings that make up Sotheby’s in Bond Street.


Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1489. 'The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein' at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Royal Collection Trust (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Paper, too, dominates the new exhibition of works from the Royal collection at the Queen’s Gallery, The Northern Renaissance, which opened last week. I left the show beaming. But not, as I had expected, because of the myriad of early Flemish, German and French paintings that are normally, I suppose, my greatest interest. Nor the three-dimensional art. But because of the works on paper. And it wasn't even the drawings that struck the loudest note with me, though some of Holbein's line drawings are stunning in their simplicity. It was, rather, the room of engravings by Albrecht Dürer where I lingered longest. These engravings, etchings and woodcuts are, both in their collective unity and individually, mesmerising.


Albrecht Dürer's Pupila Augusta, c.1498 
'The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein' at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace - Credit - Royal Collection Trust (c) 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

And of course it is not just the extraordinary level of detail that Dürer achieves, which frankly requires either younger eyes than mine, or a magnifying glass, to fully appreciate, but his unmatched sense for narrative and composition. Saint Eustace, in the second room, and Erasmus in his Study, in the first, are two that I could keep going back to again and again without, I am sure, ever failing to find a new and delightful detail. The exhibition reminds you again and again that Dürer's mind, if you didn't know it already, was absolutely swimming with ideas, and that, by concentrating most of his time in printmaking, and thus being able to replicate and sell designs more than once, his was an astute business mind too.
So, cast aside your tablets and smartphones: consider paper as officially back! That is, if you don’t find it too contradictory to read about it on a blog that is, by its very nature, paperless, and thus its archest of enemies.