My Favourite Painting: Martha Freud

Artist Martha Freud on a hauntingly beautiful Da Vinci that 'reveals so much about his process'.

Martha Freud on The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

‘My disappointment at the realisation that this piece was not, in fact, a glimpse into da Vinci’s sense of humour was quickly replaced by awe upon first seeing it. I was so inspired by the artist’s ability to give the viewer the space for their imagination to fill in the gaps; it reveals so much about his process, the marks on the page as intimate as the subject matter itself.

‘The softness of the figures and the tenderness of their connections, bodies poised to support one another, yet each figure allowed the freedom to face in their own direction. This represents much of what I try to achieve within my own family dynamic.

‘I am fascinated by the notion that an unfinished artwork can be celebrated as a finished piece in and of its own right. As an artist, it is a theme I often explore through my own practice, letting my fingerprints be and embracing the process.’

Martha Freud is an artist and ceramicist with a solo show planned for later on this year

John McEwen comments on The Virgin and Child

This ‘cartoon’ or full-scale preliminary drawing is done in charcoal and white chalk on eight sheets of originally cream-white rag paper glued together. The paper probably had a preparatory coating of largely red-brown oxide pigment. Few cartoons survive, as they were rarely intended to be ‘finished’ works. No painting resulting from this one has been found.

It is also called ‘The Burlington House Cartoon’, after its former home, the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House), which purchased it in 1779. In 1962, the cartoon was presented to the National Gallery by the National Art Collections Fund, following a public appeal towards the purchase sum of £800,000 (about £17,500,000 today).

The cartoon combines two subjects popular in 15th-century Florentine art: the Virgin and Child with St John the Baptist, accompanied by St Anne, the Virgin’s mother. St Anne is not named in the gospels, but in apocryphal Christian and Islamic tradition.

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In 1987, a man fired a sawn-off shotgun at the Virgin’s breast because of his disgust with ‘political, social and economic conditions in Britain’. The blast caused the inner layer of ‘unbreakable’ laminated glass to be pushed into the paper, tearing the Virgin’s robe, the pellets rebounding onto the floor.

The cartoon’s poor state, not least because paper becomes increasingly acidic and brittle with age, led to an International Committee report after its 1962 purchase.

Its fragility persuaded the committee to reject drastic action at the time, but repairing the unprecedented shotgun damage demanded its total restoration, with the latest scientific advances. Eric Harding of the British Museum was appointed its conservator. The work means the cartoon is in better condition today than it has been for centuries.

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'I was fascinated not only by their faces—at once human and supernatural in their beauty, illuminated as if by moonlight—but