A Sense of Touch

A Sense of Touch

19 Feb 2021 - 10:04 BY Isabella Smith

Artists have long been drawn to the drama, sensuality and tenderness that touch represents. In times when physical contact has been curtailed, our awareness of all it brings is heightened. Here are just a few examples of how its power has been harnessed.  

Bridgeman Images

Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St Thomas, 1602-3

Saint Thomas, the doubting apostle, fingers a wound in the risen Christ’s flesh. Its impact is physical – a human reflex of mingled fascination and disgust, which can be felt as viscerally now as in 1602, when Caravaggio painted The Incredulity of St Thomas. It’s a response that is empathetic – how would it feel to poke your fingers deep into another’s flesh? – and one that is, in bodily nature, capable of transcending the cultural differences of the centuries.

Bridgeman Images

The Long Engagement, 1859, by Pre-Raphaelite Arthur Hughes

This painting is rich in tactile detail, from the clasped hands to the glossy hair and softfabrics. The length of the engagement is revealed by the ivy long grown over the girl’s carved name on the tree. According to The Touch Test (the largest study yet conducted on attitudes towards touch worldwide) the materials people most enjoy feeling are fur, velvet and silk. These tactile textures provide much of the visual pleasure in the Pre-Raphaelites’ luxuriant canvases.

Bridgeman Images

Gabrielle d’Estrées and Her Sister, the Duchess of Villars, painted, anonymously, c1594

Observe the curious – and sensual – pinch featured in this painting. The meaning of the oddly affectionate gesture shown is unsure. It may have been an allusion to d’Estrées’ pregnancy and the birth, in the same year, of the illegitimate son of Henry IV. The presence of another woman sewing in the background (perhaps preparing a layette for the coming child) would seem to support this.


Edmund de Waal’s winter pot (B10), made during lockdown 2020 specifically to be touched and held

Bringing our urge towards the tactile to the present, among artists responding to current experiences has been Edmund de Waal. He recently exhibited pieces made in lockdown, the first such works in 16 years that were not to be part of installations. Instead they were designed to be touched and held; they are pieces that speak of the need for touch. ‘I was alone in my studio and silent and I needed to make vessels to touch and hold, to pass on… When you pick them up you will find the places where I have marked and moved the soft clay,’ the artist said. This spring he curates an exhibition based on the role of touch in Henry Moore’s works at the Henry Moore Foundation

Isabella Smith is assistant editor at Crafts magazine.

An extended version of this article features in the spring 2021 issue of The Arts Society Magazine, available exclusively to Members and Supporters. 



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