My dissertation, which explores how sketchbooks are collected and accessed, is, perhaps, at the midpoint – I have discovered much already and yet the real findings are still to come. But I have known for a long time how a sketchbook can be a revealing insight into the world of its creator.
Until now, though, this knowledge has come through being allowed to hold and look through the books of my peers, usually other friends who are artists. What is in a sketchbook can be intensely personal (the private/public element of them is an interesting area) and so we only get to see what its creator is prepared to reveal. And there is always the hint that what may be most enlightening is what isn't being shared.
But when the artist dies and the books find their way into an archive, what then? In the past few weeks I have been visiting institutions to see sketchbooks in their final home. From being the object left in dirty corners of the studio and stuffed into rucksacks for journeys around the globe, here they are, wrapped, supported and cared for, and viewed with lashings of hindsight.
The entry to the Prints and Drawings study room at the British Museum, the home of the nation's drawing collection, is hidden behind a big Michelangelo in Room 90. I have been reading Richard Knott's The Sketchbook War: Saving the Nation's Artists in World War II (The History Press, 2013), which tells the story of nine war artists, including the illustrator Edward Ardizzone. A sketchbook of his from the post-war years is in the museum's collection. Its pages, instead of containing drawings of bomb sites and Blitz scenes, includes pages of sunbathers from Ardizzone's more peaceful travels to the sun in south of France in the 1950s.
In this environment, the books are tangible – they can be held, and the pages turned – but they are fragile, worn in places, and there are signs of restoration in places. They have passed into another state from the time when they were live and incomplete and still in the hands of the artist. While Ardizzone's book contains little written content, another, by the British painter Roger Hilton, has. It starts in January 1946 with diary entries and new year resolutions alongside the drawings, and so the personal comes even more alive. In later years, when he was bedridden and alcoholic, the notes and drawings he left for his wife, the painter Rose Hilton, were published (Night Letters, Newlyn Orion Galleries, 1980) and make a sometimes painful read. The 1946 sketchbook is equally opinionated and direct, yet more sober, mercifully. And his drawings in biro reveal an informal attitude to capturing ideas.
Neither of the artists who filled these books appear to have had posterity in mind at the time of their making. Another visit, to the British Film Institute's archive, to see the filmmaker Derek Jarman's sketchbooks suggest that he recognised that he was making beautiful objects that would be of interest long after what turned into his much-too-early death. The books of notes, plans, sketches, collages and photographs are mainly the same brand and 30x30cm format so that they sit and look well together, and follow themes that relate to the projects he was working at any one time. (A surprising number of artists simply grab the sketchbook with blank pages that is nearest to them to draw in, so that eventually they may contain drawings that span decades.) Jarman's books were no doubt central to his work – he had them with him as filming proceeded – but he appears to have made them as beautiful objects that would be appreciated long after he had gone, and that isn't always the case with sketchbook users.
Meanwhile my survey, sent to UK institutions that hold sketchbooks to find out more about the way they are collected and accessed, is getting responses. It's hard to describe the satisfaction of getting each new completed questionnaire. Thanks to everyone who has responded to it.