Drapery Study. Lord Frederic Leighton (1830-1896). c. 1887. Black and white chalk on grey paper (LFC). 300 x 393 mm (11 13/16 x 15 1/2 inches). Signed lower right: "Study"; lower left: "Leighton studio stamp." One of five drapery studies for Captive Andromache. Provenance: Leighton studio collection until 1896; then Sir Edmund Gosse. Bought as Lot 2, Sotheby's, London, 15th July 2009. Captive Andromache was done between 1886−88 and is in Manchester City Art Galleries. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Paul Crowther

The significance of drapery in the history of art is well known. Aby Warburg linked it to "pathos formulae"—symbols that articulate primal feeling and which are transmissible across time. In his dissertation on Botticelli, for example, Warburg considers how the Quattrocento’s interest in Classical Antiquity, involved search for structures that allowed "the intensification of outward movement" (Warburg 89).

The expressive power of drapery can be approached, also, from a more philosophical direction. Drapery has an intrinsic fascination arising from its symbolic intervention on lived time. There are four aspects to this (which come together in a whole that is more than the sum of the parts).

First, everyday life is caught up in time, and organized around its demands. Drapery rendered through artistic representation, however, allows time to be contemplated in a heightened way. This [is] because well-rendered drapery declares itself as something which has gone through previous configurations to arrive at this one; and which is manifestly destined to reconfigure again, when its bearer or its setting act upon it. Through this, drapery exemplifies a dynamic living present.

Now, of course, the way the drapery reconfigures, is shaped by its bearer, or by the force exerted on it. But whilst this directs the change of shape, it does not entirely determine it. Drapery tends to hang loose, and even if it is tight, the exact distribution of its folds and creases as it reconfigures cannot entirely be predicted in the normal course of things. There is a freedom of disposition that is inherent to drapery.

Another important factor is the fact that drapery drapes. Something is covered by it. The character of what is draped may show itself to greater or lesser degrees, or remain a concealed enigma. And what is disclosed will often be just the general geometric outlines of the physical structure of what is beneath—the suggestion of spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes, or whatever, or, where relevant, the kind of light source that is behind the drapery. In this way, drapery suggests the formative spatial power of geometric structure and light effects.

Drapery carries, also, the suggestion of a skin. But unlike actual skin, it has the luxury of being removable and reconfigurable at will. It has a capacity for changing appearance that would—through its utility for survival, mating, or simply achieving a new appearance—be a wonderful thing to have. It offers the fantasy of metamorphosis.

There is a great deal more that could be said on the existential/aesthetic significance of drapery. For present purposes, it is enough to say that—if the art is good enough—the perception of artistic drapery is aesthetically pleasurable in a gently transcendent way. Through it, we contemplate a living present, with freedom in its configuration, and the suggestion of formative spatial power, and the fantasy of metamorphosis. Drapery allows mundane spatial locations and objects to appear differently—as symbols of transcendence

The Leighton studies are all significant in this respect (albeit some of them more than others). And here there is an extra dimension of meaning. For, insofar as the items of drapery are presented in isolation from their final compositional roles in Leighton's painting, this gives them an additional uncanny aspect. It is as though small irregular regions of space-content were coming to life...

You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 79.

Warburg, Aby. The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity. San Diego: Getty Research Institute, 1999.

Last modified 14 December 2014