The opening of the Sketch 2017 exhibition of 100 artists' sketchbooks at the Rabley Drawing Centre in Wiltshire was unlike any I had been to before. And I mean that in a good way. Apart from a few fragile sketchbooks behind glass, they could all be picked up and leafed through, some placed on shelves around the wall, others in a multi-sided bookcase. That sounds dangerous for a packed private view, and so precautions were taken: no drinks in the room with the books, and protective gloves for everyone handling the books. (But gloves or no gloves? There's a debate about which is best.)
|I have two sketchbooks in the show, one A6 sized (above) and one A5|
Sketchbooks, perhaps because they close shut, seem to demand an invitation from the owner before they are studied. To go unbidden between the covers of someone's sketchbook feels like an invasion of privacy. But here, deliciously, were 100 sketchbooks – two of them mine – declared free for consumption. We all worked our way around the room, flicking gently through the pages with gloved hands.
A lot of those people present were the 70 represented artists keen to see how others fill the pages of their books. The diversity was marked. Sketchbooks come in so many sizes and formats, homemade and shop-bought, huge and tiny, pristine and studio-scarred, stuffed and minimal, observational and experimental. If we say there is an average of 40 images in each sketchbook, that means the modestly sized gallery at Rabley Drawing Centre currently has about 4,000 works of art to examine.
How would this have compared with viewing the sketchbooks digitally? Much of the enjoyment of the show was the weight and feel of a book in the hands, the textures and smells even of the mediums used and fixatives added, and the chatter and interaction as people mixed around the room. Seeing them digitally would be better than not seeing them at all, but it would be a different experience.
The exhibition continues at Rabley Drawing Centre, which is near Marlborough in Wiltshire, until 17 June, before it goes on tour. There's more information about the tour and participating artists here.