Displays Archive

Behind the Scenes in Prints and Drawings: Auditing the collection

The Courtauld Gallery’s collection of prints numbers over 26,000 individual works. While that doesn’t make it the largest such collection in the UK – to put this in perspective, the British Museum has over two million prints – it’s still an impressive number and a challenge to keep track of.

So how do we do it?

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper, and Rachel Hapoienu, Drawings Cataloguer: IMAF Project

May Fortune’s Faerie Barque by Wind and Wave Be Wafted Thee, hand-coloured print, Jessie Marion King (1875-1949)

Everyone who works with the print collection on a regular basis – curators, conservators, registrars and our team of postgraduate Print Room assistants – endeavours to be as careful as possible about returning prints to their correct locations when they’re taken out for study, conservation or loan. But every couple of years, we set aside a few weeks and undertake a survey of the whole, or a large portion of, the collection – an audit.

We recently completed an audit of our 11,000-strong collection of British prints. This was actually the first time we were able to survey our entire holdings in this area, as cataloguing was only completed two years ago. As usual in such a tight-knit team, many people pitched in to work through the boxes in pairs, checking their contents against what’s recorded on our collection database.

It might not be glamorous work, and reading off endless strings of numbers can swiftly lead to a condition we jokingly referred to as ‘print audit brain’, but not only is it necessary for the proper management of the collection, it can turn up unexpected delights – for example, some lovely hand-coloured prints by Scottish illustrator Jessie Marion King (1875-1949), a contemporary of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It’s always good to be reminded of exactly how many treasures we have in store.

By Dr Rachel Sloan

William Henry Hunt: Country People

Mention William Henry Hunt to most watercolour enthusiasts and you’re likely to hear something along the lines of ‘Oh, the one who did all the birds’ nests.’ Not for nothing was Hunt (1790-1864) nicknamed ‘Bird’s Nest’ Hunt; both during his lifetime and after, he was best known for his luminous, richly detailed still lifes of flowers, feathers and bird’s nests.

However, there’s another side to Hunt’s work, every bit as fascinating, that’s overshadowed by the birds’ nests: a remarkable series of single figure studies of rural labourers produced mostly during the middle of his career, in the 1820s and 1830s. William Henry Hunt: Country People (on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 17 September) sheds light on this important aspect of his work. At the heart of the show are two works in The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, one of them exhibited here for the first time, depicting two gardeners on the estate of Hunt’s patron, the Earl of Essex.

The cast of characters – gardeners, gamekeepers, farmers, millers, kitchen maids and more – might strike us as appealingly nostalgic, capturing a lost golden age. In fact, the English countryside was undergoing tremendous social change while Hunt was painting its denizens, and some of these tensions are apparent in his choice of subject matter. Among the prosperous-looking gamekeepers, we find a poacher – a figure who undermined the age-old order the gamekeeper represented.

Hunt’s portrayals of country people are notable for their sympathetic dignity and their meticulous detail. Many of them come across as portraits of distinct individuals, but in some cases we now know he worked from a costumed model: sometimes the same figure appears in different guises, as in The Kitchen Maid and The Orphan, both modelled by his wife; in another instance, a ‘gamekeeper’s’ incorrect (and dangerous!) hold on a gun reveals that he is more likely a model than the professional of the title.

Whether records of actual rural workers or studies of a posed model, however, all of Hunt’s watercolours suggest a close encounter with his subjects. Disabled from birth and unable to work as freely out of doors as his peers, Hunt made a virtue of necessity by concentrating on figures and still lifes, closely observed in indoor settings. He insisted on working entirely from life and the vivid naturalism of his figures suggests his tireless engagement with the world around him. John Ruskin, a great admirer of Hunt’s work, called his watercolours ‘virtually faultless’. Come to the Drawings Gallery and see for yourself!

By Dr Rachel Sloan

Reading Inscriptions in the Collection

Our Reading Drawings Display, in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery until 4 June, looks at a selection of works from The Courtauld Gallery’s collection which demonstrate the varying reasons both artists and collectors wrote on drawings. These range from straightforward signatures to lengthy captions, invented languages and marks of ownership. However, it’s not just this temporary display that features inscriptions revealing essential information about a work of art’s authorship, dating, subject matter, purpose and history. The Courtauld’s full collection has its own plethora of written word on a variety of materials, detailing an array of interesting snippets of information.

Monumental Inscriptions

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

Roman funerary altar (1st century AD)

The inscription here mentions the stone was made by Lucceia Hebene for her husband, Marcus Lucceius Optatus, and daughter, who died at five years and three months. What it does not tell us, but can be deduced from the name itself, is that Hebbene (or Hebene) was a freed slave, possibly a black freed slave. (There is an associated altar, dedicated to Lucceia Hebene herself, in a castle in Scotland.)

The art and craft of lettering

Inscription, 1918, Eric Gill (1882-1940)

This carved limestone inscription reads ‘OPTIMA ET PULCHERRIMA VITAE SVPELLEX AMICTIA’. This is adapted from Cicero’s De Amicitia and means ‘The best and most beautiful support of life is friendship’. Inscribed on the right side is the name of the sculptor and date of the work, ‘EGill 1918’.

Monograms and signatures

Portrait of Mette Gauguin, 1877, Paul Gauguin

The inscription on this bust is signed and carved below the collar: P. Gauguin. Only two marble sculptures by Gauguin are known, this portrait head of his Danish wife Mette and one of his son, Emile, carved in the same year. At the time the Gauguin family was living in an apartment in the Rue des Fourneaux, in Paris, which belonged to a sculptor named Bouillot. Considering Gauguin’s inexperience as a sculptor in marble, and the highly accomplished naturalism of this work, it seems likely that Bouillot assisted Gauguin in the carving, but to what extent is not known.

Virgin and Child, Circa 1365-70, Barnaba da Modena

This small work was made for private devotion. For this purpose, Christ’s scroll is inscribed with one of the beatitudes: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The text along the bottom, ‘Barnaba da Modena painted (this)’, is a rare early example of a painter’s signature. Born in Modena in central Italy, Barnaba spent most of his career in Genoa. The heavy shading of the Virgin’s face and the gold striations on her mantle are derived from Byzantine art. This slightly archaic style may account for Barnaba’s success in Genoa, where Byzantine painting had long been dominant.

Enamel plaque painted in grisaille with David and Goliath, probably French 19th Century in the style of the 16th century

This enamel plaque shows David and Goliath, with ‘P.R.’ on the bottom of the triumphal arch. Signed enamels with the monogram ‘P.R.’ usually means they were either made in the ‘workshop of Pierre Reymond’, or by Pierre Reymond himself. However, it is thought that this work is a highly skilled 19th century forgery done in the style of Pierre Reymond.

These are just a few examples of the types of inscriptions that can be found within The Courtauld Gallery’s collection, both online and in the Gallery itself. Next time you’re visiting us, why not take a closer look at the works and delve into the world of writing and markings on works of art, and for all art that is not currently on display, you can find out more on them on our Art and Architecture website.

Visit Reading Drawings, on display until 4 June 2017

Illuminating Objects: More Than Meets The Eye

Our Illuminating Objects project for 2017 is now underway. In a series of blog posts postgraduate intern Natasha Gertler will share her discoveries as she chooses and researches the next Illuminating Object.

With an academic background in physics and an unwavering curiosity for crystals since, well, forever, it was only natural for me to choose the intricate frame bearing the double sided Aertsen painting for my ‘Illuminating Objects’ internship. Acquired by Count Seilern in 1969 from Alessandro Orso in Milan, the frame is beautifully inlaid in pietra dura with a multitude of semi-precious stones.

Or so we thought…

Upon initial inspection (which, by the way, was true love at first sight) and discussion with Sacha, Curator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts with whom I am working on this project, and Graeme, Chief Conservator, we had speculations of the material composition of the frame; that the central upper disc showing concentric red and white rings was pink agate, the two purple columns either side of the painting were amethyst and the several rich blue segments, lapis lazuli. But, as with most scientific investigations, things are not often as they seem and we needed to perform analytical experimentation to be sure.

In order to gain some insight into the constituent elements of the stones, we ventured down to the conservation laboratory of the Courtauld to use the X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) facilities, with the expert guidance of Professor Aviva Burnstock and Silvia Amato.

Having used spectroscopy many times in my undergraduate physics experiments (albeit on far less beautiful objects!) I felt quite at home and even a little nostalgic in the Courtauld’s lab. XRF works by shooting X-rays at a sample and then analysing the energies of the X-rays reflected back to the detector, which are characteristic to each individual element.

As expected, areas of red colour showed a dominance of iron (Fe) in their spectrum, and the dark blue areas exhibited the presence of Calcium (Ca) which is typical of lapis lazuli. However, many different stones as well as manmade materials also have several elements in common with each other. For example silicon (Si) is present in both agate and glass. Therefore, XRF cannot be used as a conclusive method of material identification, but rather as a further analytical tool.

Red, round element in the central upper area. Presence of silicon and iron.

Central blue segment below the painting. Presence of calcium.

Purple element, middle horizontal element below columns. Presence of silicon.

For that reason, we turned to visual analysis instead. Dr. Emma Passmore, a senior teaching fellow in Earth Sciences at Imperial College London with experience in object analysis for the British Museum, kindly came to the Courtauld’s depot to help us identify these mystery materials. She agreed with our initial theories and added that the mirroring light blue elements on the lower panel were also agate.

However, she also suggested that some of the segments might not be semi-precious stones at all, but rather synthetic imitations. These included for example the panels that look like tigers eye and the red ovals at the very bottom, as well the orange and purple coloured banners across of the top and bottom of the painting, respectively.

Professional geologists identify stones by smashing and slicing them to make slides which they can then analyse under a microscope to a very high degree of accuracy. However, in the case of historically important and valuable objects such as this unique frame, this of course is not an option and alternative, non-intrusive methods must be used instead.

Will we ever be able to know the materials present in the frame with absolute certainty? Perhaps. And so the quest for identity continues…

 

Illuminating Objects is a series of displays that shines a light on unexpected objects from The Courtauld’s decorative arts and sculpture collection.

Inscribing Prints

The Prints and Drawings Study Room is hosting a new displays that responds our Reading Drawings in The Courtauld Gallery. Print Room Assistants Imogen Tedbury and Sean Ketteringham talk us through the latest display.

Timed to coincide with the exhibition Reading Drawings, which showcases inscriptions on drawings in the Courtauld collection, this display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room looks at the function of inscriptions in prints. The Courtauld Gallery has 7,000 drawings, but it also has over 26,000 prints – so we had plenty of works to choose from!

Printed text in printed images can function very differently to handwritten text in drawings. So, we decided to leave aside the themes thoroughly examined in the drawings exhibition – attribution, the history of collecting and working practices – instead exploring why and how prints include text, and what functions word and image can serve together, across a broad range of dates and places. Playing around with the word and concept of ‘Authority’, we thought about the relative ‘authorities’ of text in an image: what happens when text moves from the frame or border to take up an active role in the image itself?

Some Early Modern printmakers represented God by representing the Word of God – his textual ‘authority’, if you like. In these prints, the physical representation of God’s Word as visual sign plays a central role within the image. In the Fall of the Tower of Babel, for example, the illegible rotation of the Latin text signifies the fragmentation of earthly language.

We were also interested in how an authority – whether political, religious or artistic – can be undermined by the use of inscription. Two eighteenth-century satirical prints chosen for the display use fragments of text to make fun of their subjects, subverting them by parodying religious language. An attack by an anonymous artist on Robert Walpole, the first prime minister of Britain, even seems a forerunner for 2017 Turner Prize nominee Anthea Hamilton’s installation of a giant bottom, Project for Door (After Gaetano Pesce), or Pauline Boty’s 1966 painting, Bum!

Printmaking’s close relationship with book-printing inspires the last group of prints – a selection of title pages and cover images from Canaletto to Wyndham Lewis considering how frontispieces reveal and conceal their textual and pictorial content. In these prints no clear boundary can be drawn between word and image, as together they combine to communicate the author’s identity.

Come and see these printed treasures, some of which have not been on display before. The Prints and Drawings Study Room is open by appointment Monday-Thursday 10am-5pm, or drop in on Wednesday afternoons during term time, 1.30-4pm, no appointment needed

Idol-Worship or The Way to Preferment, a portrait of Robert Walpole., 1740, © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London