Theresa Thompson explores Filippino Lippi's Florentine drawings, at Christ Church Picture Gallery

It’s shown once in a lifetime,” said curator Jacqueline Thalmann. That time has come for an unfinished drawing by Filippino Lippi that’s normally out of sight on the back of his painting of The Wounded Centaur, but which until 26 June forms the heart of Christ Church Picture Gallery’s latest exhibition Filippino Lippi and drawing in Florence around 1500.

The centaur is one of the highlights of their collection, a painting in egg tempera and oil on wood by the 15th century Tuscan artist Filippino Lippi - ‘little Filippo,’ the son of the celebrated painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Filippino, a renowned painter of frescoes and altarpieces and brilliant draughtsman, also worked closely with Botticelli in his workshop.

The Wounded Centaur is not on view, however. It can’t be. It is impossible to show both painting and verso drawing together as they are upside down to one another. So, for now we just have to jog our memories of this painting of a half-horse half-human that lifts its front hoof pierced by a poisoned arrow, while a tiny Cupid with bow looks on, lolling against a fantastical rock face. As Cupid is the harbinger of love, the likely moral of this important work by Filippino Lippi is “Don't play around with love as it will hurt,” said Thalmann.

The discarded drawing has a love theme too, possibly, for it has been called The Triumph of Love. It is an allegory most likely exploring the idea of fame or fortune. Not that much is known about it, except what is seen: a drawing of three female figures dancing, with another floating above, in paint and ink on a gesso ground. Elusive and unresolved, it nonetheless indicates how the artist worked.

Looking at the figures in more detail and then at the other drawings on display, we begin to appreciate the fineness and grace of Filippino’s work. Many of his surviving drawings are in metalpoint, a difficult technique using a stylus tipped in metal on prepared paper that can only produce fine lines. Superb examples here include his silverpoint drawing heightened with white of The Litter Bearer, where he speedily and vividly captures the moment an ordinary young man bends to take the litter’s weight; and two sheets from Vasari’s collection, one of Figure studies, some robed, some nude, and another containing a mass of drawings, from fighting centaurs, to a river god, architectural elements, and a chubby leg floating by itself amid putti!

Other artists include Lorenzo di Credi, Fra Bartolomeo, Raphael (not from Florence, but working there), and Raphaellino del Garbo whose tondo of the Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Mary Magdalen shows, despite its more ornamental style, how much he was influenced by Filippino Lippi.

This is what this exhibition is about. “It’s not an overview of drawing in Florence in the 15th century,” Thalmann explained. “We want to show what was around at that time, and hope that people will see differences between the artists and styles, and how thoughts and ideas developed.”

Two paintings hung side-by-side in the Red Gallery illustrate how artists working closely together can develop a “workshop language.” The paintings, each showing Five Sibyls sitting, variously posed in architectural niches - one painted by Filippino Lippi and one by Botticelli – exemplify that closeness. As two Botticelli exhibitions open in London, this Christ Church show is our chance in Oxford to engage with great 15th century Florentine artists.

* Filippino Lippi and drawing in Florence around 1500

Christ Church Picture Gallery. Until June 26.