Leonardo da Vinci at The Lightbox, Woking

PUBLISHED: 19:41 14 September 2010 | UPDATED: 16:11 20 February 2013

Leonardo da Vinci at The Lightbox in Woking - Surrey Life magazine

Leonardo da Vinci at The Lightbox in Woking - Surrey Life magazine

Woking art gallery The Lightbox continues to punch above its weight, this time bringing the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions to Surrey. Here, MATTHEW WILLIAMS speaks to gallery director Marilyn Scott to find out more

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2009

Woking art gallery The Lightbox continues to punch above its weight, this time bringing the genius of Leonardo da Vinci and his inventions to Surrey. Here, MATTHEW WILLIAMS speaks to gallery director Marilyn Scott to find out more

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While Leonardo da Vinci may be justly applauded for his great works of art, people often forget that in his time he was also one of the world's foremost architects, scientists, anatomists, mathematicians, engineers and inventors (space restrictions forbid a full CV) ever to grace this planet.

And now, in what is a major coup for Surrey, a landmark exhibition of his amazing inventions, which have been painstakingly recreated by a team of Italian artisans working in Rome, is about to be shown in the UK for the first time at Woking art gallery The Lightbox.

Leonardo takes over
"When we first opened in 2007, Leonardo was a name that kept jumping out when brainstorming our exhibition wish list for the gallery," says director Marilyn Scott. "So, we began researching and got in touch with the Leonardo da Vinci Museum in Rome.

"It turned out that they had been working on an exhibition of Leonardo's inventions, created from his original notes, that they planned to send to various venues around Europe. They hadn't originally intended for it to come to the UK but when we got in touch they offered us the chance of hosting it; a fantastic coincidence really.

"We will be the first venue to ever host the exhibition in the UK and, at the time, were meant to be the only one, but the exhibition has created such interest that it will now be going up to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester after its time with us."

Coinciding with the British Festival of Science, which takes place in Guildford this September, the exhibition will literally take over the whole building, with around 50 life-size models of his machines for flight, engineering and motion in the main gallery, an Italian theme in the caf, and exhibition space dedicated to Leonardo's life and times, as well as his art. There will even be an Italian Renaissance garden, a collaborative effort with RHS Wisley, created from plants known to Leonardo - among his many talents, he was also a botanical artist.

"It's fascinating being able to show his models and copies of his drawings alongside each other and to draw parallels between his designs and the modern equivalents that we see today," says Marilyn. "One amazing example is his design for the car, which looks so similar to the very early cars you might see down the road at Brooklands. The fact he was working in the 15th century is pretty extraordinary.

"Most of the staff here have art or history backgrounds, so we knew a lot about what he did as an artist. We didn't realise, however, quite how varied he was over so many fields and feel this is what will really capture people's imagination. I'm sure we'll see more than a few surprised faces at the exhibition."

Relatively few of Leonardo's designs were constructed or were even feasible during his lifetime, and it has taken over ten years to create all the models, which have been made using only materials and techniques known in Renaissance Italy.

"Certainly, one of the most interesting, and largest, models that we have is his flying machine, which is basically a helicopter," says Marilyn. "It's amazing to think that some 500 years ago, he was able to come up with something that so obviously influenced modern technology.

"Another of the models we will have at the exhibition is of a bicycle. It certainly looks the part but as you get closer, you realise that it could only go in one direction because it had fixed handlebars and so no way to turn. We can't all be perfect!"

In fact, some still claim the bicycle design to be a hoax added to Leonardo's Codex Atlanticus at a later date by an unknown hand, while others believe the sketches to be the work of an apprentice of Leonardo's who perhaps caught a fleeting glimpse of a design in the great man's studio and quickly copied it. Either way, the world had to wait four centuries before the bicycle would become a reality.

The Da Vinci Code
One thing's for sure, intrigue follows Leonardo's name wherever it goes and so it was not really a surprise when Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code led to such a resurgence of interest in the man who seemingly could do anything. And, while codes, nudges and winks certainly made it into Leonardo's art work, as Brown's book suggests, this mystery and gamesmanship had its roots in more practical purposes, too.

"In Renaissance Italy, you were dependent on wealthy patrons in a position like Leonardo's and people were always looking to steal ideas," says Marilyn. "So, he invented incredible codes and used things like mirror writing to protect his ideas. What is amazing about this exhibition is that these craftsmen in Rome who built the models had to study his notes and decipher his codes before they were able to build any of his inventions!"

Just recently, Leonardo has also been linked to what could well turn out to be the art world's greatest forgery, the Turin Shroud, which has inspired generations of pilgrims to flock to see what they believe is the face of the crucified Jesus. Whether theories that it was really a da Vinci creation bear out or not, his name is certainly back in the headlines.

"We will, of course, be showing Leonardo as an artist, too, with in-depth studies of the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and some of the hidden codes behind them," adds Marilyn. "We'll also be looking at the techniques he used, so we've got something for even the most avid art lover as well."

A major coup
Alongside the models and copies of his artworks, The Lightbox will also be showcasing one of Leonardo's original notebooks, known as a codex or codices, which included his studies on mathematics, geometry, weights, and hydraulic machines. The Forster Codex is on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the notebook will be housed in its own gallery with an exhibition charting the life and career of the Italian master.

"This is really exciting, as there are only about 16 of Leonardo's original notebooks in the world," says Marilyn. "Even though that is not many, in some ways it's incredible to think that after 500 years so many of his, what were basically, scribble pads still exist. I think the Queen has a few, Bill Gates bought one for $30.8m and many never leave Italian shores. We're very lucky that the Victoria and Albert Museum were willing to lend us this one. It's a great responsibility for us to be able to showcase it in Woking as it is very fragile and rarely displayed in public. It's fantastic that we can bring this to Surrey and the local people."

Woking goes Italian
As a central focal point for the Woking community, the gallery is also planning to use this special exhibition, with potential interest coming from far and wide, to forge further links with the town as a whole. With this in mind, the first weekend of the exhibition will see Woking going Italian, with street markets, entertainment and all sorts.

There will also be a Da Vinci code running throughout the exhibition, where participants will seek elements of a code in Woking's stores each week with a view to winning prizes.

"Obviously, we've been developing this exhibition since way before the credit crunch took a firm grip," says Marilyn. "But as the economic situation continues to develop, it is even more important that we work together in Surrey to promote all the wonderful things that are taking place around us."

Much like Leonardo da Vinci, The Lightbox is proving to be something of a master of all trades since it opened and with exhibitions of this calibre on the horizon, it doesn't look like there will be any need to go back to the drawing board just yet.

  • Da Vinci Inventions: Leonardo and his Machines runs at The Lightbox, Chobham Road, Woking GU21 4AA (01483 737800) until Sunday November 1. Pick up a copy of September's Surrey Life for your chance to win an exclusive dinner and behind the scenes tour of the exhibition with director Marilyn Scott and curator Michael Regan.

Dates for your diary: Our pick of events at The Lightbox

Wednesday September 9, 7pm
Leonardo the artist
Leading scholar Martin Clayton, who is custodian of the Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the Royal Collection, will give a talk about Leonardo as an artist and draughtsman.

Thursday September 17, 7pm
Decoding Leonardo's drawings and codices
Dr Modesto Veccia, director of the Leonardo da Vinci museum in Rome, will tell of how he worked with scholars, historians and artisans to decode the original drawings and codices to create the models that feature in the exhibition.

Saturday October 3, 7pm
An evening of Italian song
The Junior Royal Academy of Music introduces The Reynolds Singers, who will perform an impressive repertoire of Italian songs. Tickets 10, includes a glass of Italian wine.

Wednesday October 7, 7pm
Green genius
Famous garden historian, author and broadcaster Caroline Holmes will reveal another aspect of Leonardo's genius in his contribution to the development of the Renaissance garden.

Tuesday October 20, 7pm
Leonardo & the remaking of nature
World-renowned expert on Leonardo da Vinci, Professor Martin Kemp, will give a talk on how engineering and art are analogous in the work of da Vinci.

  • All talks cost 6 for adults; 5 concessions (includes glass of Italian wine) unless otherwise stated.

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