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The Draughtsman's Contract

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The Draughtsman's Contract
Theatrical re-release poster
Directed byPeter Greenaway
Written byPeter Greenaway
Produced byDavid Payne
CinematographyCurtis Clark
Edited byJohn Wilson
Music byMichael Nyman
Distributed byArtificial Eye
Release date
  • 4 September 1982 (1982-09-04) (Italy)
Running time
104 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom
Budget£320,000[1][2] or £360,000[3]
Box office£420,000 (UK)[3]

The Draughtsman's Contract is a 1982 British period comedy-drama film written and directed by Peter Greenaway – his first conventional feature film (following the feature-length mockumentary The Falls). Originally produced for Channel 4, the film is a form of murder mystery, set in rural Wiltshire, England in 1694 (during the joint reign of William III and Mary II). The period setting is reflected in Michael Nyman's score, which borrows widely from Henry Purcell, and in the extensive and elaborate costume designs (which, for effect, slightly exaggerate those of the period). The action was shot on location in the house and formal gardens of Groombridge Place.[4] The film received the Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association.


Mr Neville, a young and conceited artist, is contracted by Mrs Virginia Herbert to produce a series of twelve landscape drawings of her country house, its outbuildings and gardens, as a gift for her cold and neglectful husband, who is currently away on business.

Part of the contract is that Mrs Herbert agrees to comply with Mr Neville's sexual demands. Several sexual encounters between them follow, each indicating reluctance or distress on the part of Mrs Herbert, and sexual aggression or insensitivity on the part of Mr Neville. During his stay, Mr Neville becomes disliked by several of the estate's inhabitants and visitors, especially by Mrs Herbert's German son-in-law, Mr Talmann.

Eventually Mrs Herbert, wearied by Mr Neville's excessive sexual appetite, tries to terminate the contract before the drawings are completed. But Neville refuses and their encounters continue as before. Then Mrs Herbert's married but childless daughter, Mrs Talmann, frustrated by her husband's lack of interest in sex, blackmails Neville into a second contract, in which he agrees to comply with her sexual demands, rather than she with his. Mrs Talman wishes to become pregnant, and knows this is unlikely to happen with her husband.

Mr Herbert does not return when expected, and his dead body is eventually discovered in the moat. Mr Neville completes his drawings and leaves, but returns to make an unlucky thirteenth drawing. During his visit, he is surprised when Mrs Herbert propositions him for sex, and they make love. Mrs Herbert also indicates that her daughter's plan to conceive a child by Mr Neville has been successful.

In the evening, while Mr Neville is apparently finishing the final sketch, he is approached by a masked man, obviously Mr Talmann in disguise, who is then joined by the estate manager and Mrs Herbert's former fiancé, Mr Noyes, her neighbour Mr Seymour, and the Poulenc twins, eccentric local landowners.

The party accuses Mr Neville of the murder of Mr Herbert, for the drawings can be interpreted to suggest more than one illegal act and to implicate more than one person. They also accuse him of the sexual violation of Mrs Herbert, as evidenced by his sexual congress with her that afternoon.

Neville realises, too late, that he has been entrapped by Mrs Herbert. Despite his protests, the group of men blind him and beat him to death, finally casting his body into the moat at the place where Mr Herbert's corpse was found.



Although there is a murder mystery, its resolution is not explicit; it is implied that the mother (Mrs Herbert) and daughter (Mrs Talmann) planned the murder of Mr Herbert.[5] Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talmann were aided by Mr Clarke, the gardener, and his assistant.

In order to keep the estate in their hands, they needed an heir. Because Mr Talmann was impotent, they used Mr Neville as a stud. Mr Herbert was murdered at the site where Mr Neville is murdered. (In the original treatment, Mr Herbert is murdered on his return on the 12th day and the site was vetoed as a painting site, because it was instead to be used as a murder site.)


The film was inspired when Greenaway, who trained as an artist before becoming a filmmaker, spent three weeks drawing a house near Hay-on-Wye while holidaying with his family. Much like Mr Neville in the final film, every day he would work on a particular view at a set time, to preserve the lighting effects while sketching from day to day. The hands shown drawing in the film are Greenaway's own, as are the completed drawings.[6]

The original cut of the film was about three hours long. The opening scene was about 30 minutes long and showed each character talking, at least once, with every other character. Possibly to make the film easier to watch, Greenaway edited it to 103 minutes. The opening scene is now about 10 minutes long and no longer shows all the interactions among all of the characters. Some anomalies in the longer version film are deliberate anachronisms: the depiction of the use of a cordless phone in the 17th century and the inclusion on the walls of the house of paintings by Greenaway in emulation of Roy Lichtenstein which are partly visible in the released version of the film.[7]

The released final version provides fewer explanations to the plot's numerous oddities and mysteries. The main murder mystery is never solved, though little doubt remains as to who did it. The reasons for the 'living statue' in the garden and why Mr Neville attached so many conditions to his contract were also more developed in the first version.


Groombridge Place was the main location in this tale of 17th-century intrigue and murder. [8]


The Draughtsman's Contract
Soundtrack album by
  • 1982 (1982)
GenreContemporary classical music, Film scores; minimalism
DRG (Italy)
Charisma/Caroline (CD)
ProducerDavid Cunningham
Michael Nyman chronology
Michael Nyman
The Draughtsman's Contract
The Cold Room
Professional ratings
Review scores

Michael Nyman's score is derived from grounds by Henry Purcell overlaid with new melodies, while one of the recurring tracks, apparently excluded from the film's soundtrack, is at least partly derived from the second movement of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Violin Sonata in E Minor, K. 304. The original plan was to use one ground for every two of the twelve drawings but Nyman states in the liner notes that this was unworkable. The ground for one of the most popular pieces, "An Eye for Optical Theory", is considered to be probably composed by William Croft, a contemporary of Purcell.[citation needed] The goal was to create a generalized memory of Purcell, rather than specific memories, so a piece as readily recognizable as "Dido's Lament" was not considered an acceptable source of a ground. Purcell is credited as a "music consultant".

The album was the fourth album release by Michael Nyman and the third to feature the Michael Nyman Band. "It's like harpsichord and a lot of strings, woodwind and a bit of brass," remarked Neil Hannon, frontman of The Divine Comedy. "Somehow they just manage to… rock. With a vengeance."[10]

The following ground sources are taken from the chart in Pwyll ap Siôn's The Music of Michael Nyman: Text, Context and Intertext, reordered to match their sequence on the album.[11]

Track listing[edit]

  1. "Chasing Sheep Is Best Left to Shepherds"- 2:33 (King Arthur, Act III, Scene 2, Prelude (as Cupid descends))
  2. "The Disposition of the Linen"- 4:47 ("She Loves and She Confesses Too" (Secular Song, Z.413))
  3. "A Watery Death"- 3:31 ("Pavan in B flat," Z. 750; "Chaconne" from Suite No. 2 in G Minor)
  4. "The Garden Is Becoming a Robe Room"- 6:05 ("Here the deities approve" from Welcome to all the Pleasures (Ode); E minor ground in Henry Playford's collection, Musick's Hand-Maid (Second Part))
  5. "Queen of the Night"- 6:09 ("So when the glitt'ring Queen of the Night" from The Yorkshire Feast Song)
  6. "An Eye for Optical Theory"- 5:09 (Ground in C minor (D221) [attributed to William Croft])
  7. "Bravura in the Face of Grief"- 12:16 ("The Plaint" from The Fairy-Queen, Act V)

The first music heard in the film is, in fact, a bit of Purcell's song "Queen of the Night." "The Disposition of the Linen," in its Nyman formulation, is a waltz, a form that postdates Purcell by c. 150 years.

The album was issued on compact disc in 1989 by Virgin Records, marketed in the United States by Caroline Records under their Blue Plate imprint. Initially this was indicated with a sticker; it was later incorporated into the back cover design in a much smaller size.

The entire album has been rerecorded by the current lineup of the Michael Nyman Band. See The Composer's Cut Series Vol. I: The Draughtsman's Contract.

Art references[edit]

The visual references for the film are paintings by Caravaggio, de La Tour, Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Baroque artists and this gives the film a "painterly quality".[12] Greenaway also said: "I consider that 90% of my films one way or another refers to paintings. "Contract" quite openly refers to Caravaggio, Georges de La Tour and other French and Italian artists".[13]


The Draughtsman's Contract has a 97% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 31 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.3/10. The site's consensus reads: "Smart and utterly original, The Draughtsman's Contract is a period piece that marks the further maturation of a writer-director with a thrillingly unique vision".[14] Roger Ebert, who gave the film a full four stars, wrote, "What we have here is a tantalizing puzzle, wrapped in eroticism and presented with the utmost elegance. [...] All of the characters speak in complete, elegant, literary sentences. All of the camera strategies are formal and mannered. The movie advances with the grace and precision of a well-behaved novel."[15] In Slant, a mildly positive Jeremiah Kipp called it "a first, fledgling attempt at what he later perfected, but that modesty could be seen as a virtue, since there is indeed some form of narrative here instead of the nonlinear, compulsive list-making and categorization that drives some people crazy about his other films. [...] The story marches forward like a death march and is resolved with merciless efficiency."[16] Danny Peary wrote that "Greenaway handles everything with such elegance that we are totally unprepared for the final act of cruelty. Ending is haunting; it makes you reassess all that went before – supposed victims are really heartless predators."[17]


The film was originally shot on Super 16mm film then blown up to 35mm for cinema releases. In 2003 the BFI restored the film digitally and this restoration was released on DVD. Umbrella Entertainment released the digitally restored film on DVD in Australia, with special features including an introduction and commentary by Peter Greenaway, an interview with composer Michael Nyman, behind the scenes footage and on set interviews, deleted scenes, trailers and a featurette on the film's digital restoration.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alexander Walker, National Heroes: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties, Harrap, 1985 p 261
  2. ^ BRITISH PRODUCTION 1981 Moses, Antoinette. Sight and Sound; London Vol. 51, Iss. 4, (Fall 1982): 258.
  3. ^ a b "Back to the Future: The Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s - An Information Briefing" (PDF). British Film Institute. 2005. p. 21. Archived (PDF) from the original on 12 September 2015. Retrieved 29 November 2020.
  4. ^ The location is given as "Groombridge" for example in the stills page Archived 10 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ The details are spelled out in Greenaway's original treatment, as DVD bonuses on the BFI website
  6. ^ Greenaway, Peter (1 August 2003). "Murder he drew". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 3 April 2018. Retrieved 2 April 2018.
  7. ^ Willochet, Paula. Peter Greenaway in Indianapolis lecture, Introduction. 1997.
  8. ^ Kent Film Office. "Kent Film Office The Draughtsman's Contract Film Focus". Archived from the original on 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014.
  9. ^ The Draughtsman's Contract at AllMusic
  10. ^ Thornton, Anthony: 'Neil Hannon's Record Collection', Q #146, November 1998, p67
  11. ^ Pwyll ap Siôn. The Music of Michael Nyman: text, context and intertext, page 96.
  12. ^ "motion.kodak.com". Archived from the original on 3 June 2009. Retrieved 31 March 2009.
  13. ^ L'avant-scène cinéma, "Peter Greenaway: Meurtre dans un jardin anglais", n° 333, October 1984
  14. ^ "The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)". Rotten Tomatoes. Archived from the original on 21 December 2016. Retrieved 11 November 2022.
  15. ^ Ebert, Roger (29 September 1983). "The Draughtsman's Contract Movie Review (1983)". Archived from the original on 2 February 2017. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  16. ^ Kipp, Jeremiah (22 January 2008). "The Draughtsman's Contract". Slant. Archived from the original on 26 July 2013. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  17. ^ Peary, Danny (1986). Guide for the film fanatic. New York: Simon & Schuster. p. 131. ISBN 0-671-61081-3. OCLC 13581204.
  18. ^ "Umbrella Entertainment - DRAUGHTSMANS CONTRACT, THE". Kew, Victoria, Australia: Umbrella Entertainment. Archived from the original on 7 April 2014. Retrieved 16 August 2012.

External links[edit]