Stephen Farthing: The drawn sword - from Sitting Bull to Brian Sewell

During the last twenty years of his life, Sitting Bull completed more than 100 drawings. He made the first 50 to establish his status as a warrior within his own culture and the rest to enable his relationship with the non-indigenous Americans who incarcerated him during final years of his life. Both sets were carefully targeted acts of communication.

Drawing of horses by Stephen Farthing
Stephen Farthing

Sitting Bull’s intuitive understanding of the combined power of the drawn image and the spoken word, prompts me to remark on the lack of courage and intuition the authors of the most recent national curriculum for England demonstrate.

By leaving drawing in the art room, the authors of our national curriculum take us back to a time when scholars considered Albrecht Durer’s engagement with mathematics and Leonardo Da Vinci’s with human anatomy as pointless.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the relationship of writing, drawing and the spoken word was never explained to me at school. Drawing was all about self expression and the emulation of the craft skills of modernists like Cezanne, Van Gogh and Matisse. As a result the two primary types of drawing, the Pictorial and the Conceptual, were neither explained nor made to meet.

The Pictorial was for the most part dealt with in the art room, while The Conceptual was practiced in mathematics, science, music and geography lessons. To picture the difference between the two, we need to imagine we have a sheet of paper and a pencil and are looking up at a cloudless night sky. The dots we make to plot the position of the stars are an example of conceptual drawing. These dots become pictorial when they are joined by lines, in such a way that they become an aphorism. The image of a man with a sword in his belt Orion, or the image of a Big Dipper or Plough.

Some, especially those of us who were educated in the shadow of John Ruskin’s view of drawing, may be surprised that my support of drawing places less emphasis on seeing than on modeling thought.

Seeing may well be where it all starts, but having spent the last three years collaborating with a registered blind person I know that when we put pencil to paper, we are more likely to be modeling our thoughts than thoughtlessly reproducing what is before us.

An example of a conceptual drawing is the one William Barrett Travis, a 26 year old Texan colonel executed towards the end off the siege at the Alamo. As the officer in charge of the besieged mission he called the depleted company together to present a range of exit strategies: to surrender and be executed, to try against the odds to fight their way out or to sell their lives as dearly as possible defending the fort. At the end of his address Travis drew his sword and stuck its point in the dirt, slowly drawing a line that divided him from his company. He said, "I now want every man who is willing to stay here and die with me to come across this line." 

His drawing didn’t simply dramatize his words, it gave the company the opportunity to mutely declare a choice.

My goal as the professor of drawing at University of the Arts London is to get drawing out of the art room and into an environment where it can demonstrate its relevance to all subjects not just art and design.

A few years ago I was on stage talking about drawing with the art critic, Brian Sewell, who sadly passed away this year. In a conscious attempt at broadening our discussion I described the sun dial as "a prefect drawing machine". I said, "It made conceptual drawings that not only told the time but spoke to Earth’s relationship with the sun". This irritated Brian, who swung the conversation back to Lord Leighton, the line, the nude and beauty. When he finally paused, I continued, "What then, do you do with Leonardo and his drawings of flowing water and blood?" At that point he snapped, "I’m not interested in plumbing." 

Brian Sewell wanted Great Art. As an artist so do I, as an educator I also want a more thoughtful culture that is driven by good communicators. Sitting Bull did not produce great art, but he understood the very productive relationship that the spoken word and the drawn line enjoy and used it very effectively as a tool of both diplomacy and leadership.

Profile image of Stephen Farthing

Stephen Farthing

Rootstein Hopkins UAL Chair of Drawing

University of the Arts London