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

Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery

Dr Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator on Works on Paper

What makes up the largest portion of The Courtauld Gallery’s collection? You might be surprised by the answer…

Prints. Over 24,000 of them, to be precise.

The second Summer Showcase display to highlight a particular aspect of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery explores this largest but least well known portion of the collection.

This display of 30 prints spans five centuries and covers most of the major printmaking techniques, from engraving to etching, lithography, wood engraving, woodcut and drypoint.

View of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), The Jockey, 1899, Lithograph

Selecting the display from such a vast collection was certainly a challenge, similar to that undertaken by my colleagues Joanna Selborne and Lizzie Jacklin for their parallel display of prints from the Witt Library, Purpose and Process: British and French Printmaking, 1600-1900.

In choosing the works, I wanted to give visitors an idea of the breadth and depth of the collection, to highlight its strengths and to give a sense of the way its three principal donors shaped it.

The vast majority of the print collection comes from Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952), one of the founders of The Courtauld. Witt created an image library to serve as a research and educational tool for students, scholars and curators, and the more than 20,000 prints that formed part of it (along with thousands of photographs and catalogue cuttings) are mostly reproductive – that is, they reproduce works of art in other media.

Purpose and Process focuses on this aspect of the Witt collection, so I decided to highlight instead some of the small but choice group of ‘master prints’ (prints conceived and executed by artists as original works of art) that came from the Witt Library – a very rare etching by French Mannerist Jacques Bellange, an exquisitely detailed print by Jacques Callot that was made for a city festival in Florence and intended to be mounted and distributed to spectators in the form of a fan, and an allegory of the visual arts by Flemish artist Johannes Stradanus that gives pride of place to printmaking, to name a few.

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Jacques Callot, The Fan (The Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer), 1619, Etching

Many of The Courtauld’s Old Master prints came to us from Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978), a scholar-collector who bequeathed them along with his superb collection of paintings and drawings. Some of the gems from his collection included in the display include important early engravings and etchings by Andrea Mantegna and Parmigianino and masterpieces by a trio of eighteenth-century Venetian artists – Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Canaletto and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.

View of the etching 'smoking fire' by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), Smoking fire, 1749-1760, Etching

It’s also thanks to Seilern that we have a rare impression of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s enigmatic Rabbit Hunt, the only print the artist executed himself. With stunning naturalism, Bruegel depicts a vast landscape in which is hidden a hunter aiming at two rabbits who appears to be stalked by another hunter himself – perhaps an illustration of the proverb ‘He who pursues two rabbits at once, will lose both.’

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 Etching,

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rabbit Hunt, 1560 ,Etching

The Courtauld’s renowned collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art includes prints alongside paintings and drawings (many of them given by Samuel Courtauld himself), and they’re well-represented here, with an etching by Edouard Manet, a wood engraving by Paul Gauguin, and lithographs by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pierre Bonnard.

The display also gives us a chance to show how artists have continued to turn to printmaking in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with prints by Picasso, Matisse, Lucian Freud, Chris Ofili and Linda Karshan. Together, they give a taste of how artists today continue to revive and reinvent printmaking techniques, turning them to different ends.

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching and drypoint

Linda Karshan, N.E. 1, 2002, Etching

We hope you’ll come and make a few discoveries of your own among the Courtauld’s prints.

Bruegel to Freud: Prints from The Courtauld Gallery runs 19 June-21 September.