This study is most substantial pen and ink drawing by Oliver currently known, and draws together various strands of Oliver's work as a draughtsman, etcher, exponent of Italianate disegno and member of the circle of Charles I's connoisseurial advisors. Oliver's identity as a draughtsman was only recently established, in a 1998 article by Jeremy Wood. A sheet of pen and ink studies of Leonardesque figures at Chatsworth is signed 'Pierre Olivier' and dated 1632, and this enabled Wood to attribute several similar drawings to Oliver among the large collection assembled by Inigo Jones and now at Chatsworth, as well as examples in the Courtauld Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum that were previously assumed to be by his father Isaac Oliver.
As well as significantly changing our understanding of Isaac Oliver's draughtsmanship, Wood's reassessment of Peter Oliver secures for him 'a more substantial role than was previously thought in introducing Italianate methods of drawing into British art.' Oliver's presence within the circle of collectors and connoisseurs who gathered around the court of Charles I is partly documented, for in 1631 he made two watercolour copies of a painting by Titian that was then in Arundel's collection, and copies of Leonardo drawings also owned by Arundel are dated 1626; Endymion Porter helped Oliver obtain a pension of £200 in 1637. Much of it, though, may be inferred from Oliver's pen and ink studies such as the present drawing, which show the influence of the sixteenth-century Italian drawings that were arriving in England from the mid-1620s onwards. Oliver's concern appears to have been to master the elegant forms and gestures of draughtsmen such as Parmaganino, which was a matter of great interest also to Inigo Jones, whose attempt to re-learn to draw in the Italian tradition in the 1630s may account for his ownership of a copy after the present drawing (Chatsworth, Devonshire). The authorship of this copy remains uncertain, though its scrappy cross-hatching has similarities with Jones's own technique.
The seated female figure here is closely associated with an etching. The etching is known in three states, the last of which contains the initials 'P.O.' on the basis of which it has traditionally been attributed to Oliver. The emergence of our drawing surely puts the attribution beyond doubt. The print is in the tradition of the peintre-graveur, the painter who engaged in print-making on a small scale in the manner of drawing, with more creative than commercial intentions. Oliver's direct study for the print, pricked for transfer, has also only recently come to light, in the Rijksmuseum. It is drawn more loosely than our sheet, with a fluid light grey wash that marks out the areas that would remain untouched by the etcher's point. As both Jeremy Wood and Antony Griffiths have observed, the etching shows the influence of Netherlandish mannerism on Oliver, from which we might infer that it is of an earlier date than our drawing, whose overtly Italianate character places it in the late 1620s or later. Rather than a preliminary sketch for the etching, as Wood characterises it, our drawing is perhaps best understood alongside the etching as common articulations of a theme seen widely in Oliver's drawn work, of the pious or studious female, usually seated or posed next to a desk or plinth. To these two examples maybe added a further sheet at Chatsworth with a woman with her head in her hand, her elbow resting on an upturned book, whose head being very similar may be close in date to our drawing. Three studies at the British Museum and one at the Ashmolean are further expressions on this theme. The young man gesturing to his left in our drawing is related to a drawing at the Courtauld Gallery and may in turn be associated with Oliver's drawings of meditative male figures, such as the example at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon.
The drawing as a whole is cut from a larger sheet, as is apparent from the abrupt truncation of both the large and small female figures, yet even in this reduced state it is unique among Oliver's work, almost all of which has been cut into smaller fragments of individual sketches. Interestingly, the early copy among Inigo Jones's papers confirms that it was in this state in the early seventeenth century. The top-left corner of the sheet was also lost before Jones's copy was made. The semi-circular pen marks left on the sheet leave few clues as to what they were part of, but they may well have been the edges of drapery on the upper body much like in the large female's arm.
The drawing bears the collector’s stamp of classical scholar John Antony Cramer who was Principal of New Inn Hall, Oxford, from 1831, and Regius Professor of Modern History from 1842. Cramer was involved in the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in 1839. According to inscriptions on some drawings from his collection, Cramer's collection was sold at Oxford in 1847, and there was a further sale at Sotheby's on 11-14 February 1850.
- Jeremy Wood, 'Peter Oliver at the Court of Charles I: New Drawings and Documents', Master Drawings, Summer 1998, vol 36, no 2, pp.123-53.
- Jeremy Wood, 'Peter Oliver at the Court of Charles I: New Drawings and Documents', Master Drawings, Summer 1998, vol 36, no 2, p.139
- Jeremy Wood, 'Peter Oliver at the Court of Charles I: New Drawings and Documents', Master Drawings, Summer 1998, vol 36, no 2, pp.129-30
- Jeremy Wood, 'Inigo Jones, Italian Art, and the Practice of Drawing', The Art Bulletin, June 1992, vol 74, no 2, pp.247-70.
- Antony Griffiths, The Print in Stuart Britain 1603-1689, exh cat., London (British Museum), 1998, pp.98-100.
- Rijksmuseum, museum no.RP-P-1888-A-1452. Antony Griffiths, ''The Print in Stuart Britain' Revisited', Print Quarterly, June 2000, vol 17 no 2, p.117.
- Antony Griffiths, ''The Print in Stuart Britain' Revisited', Print Quarterly, June 2000, vol 17 no 2, p.117.
- Reproduced Jeremy Wood, 'Peter Oliver at the Court of Charles I: New Drawings and Documents', Master Drawings, Summer 1998, vol 36, no 2, fig.19.
- Jill Finsten, Isaac Oliver: Art at the Courts of Elizabeth I and James I, New York, 1981, vol 1, pp. 234-5, 237-9, nos 193, 195, 197 and 198, where attributed to Isaac Oliver.
- Musée des Beaux-Arts, Besançon, museum no.D.3042, reproduced Jill Finsten, Isaac Oliver: Art at the Courts of Elizabeth I and James I, New York, 1981, vol 2 fig 184.