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

Bloomsbury Art & Design

Our special display Bloomsbury Art & Design opened last month. It brings together a wide-ranging selection of work by the remarkable Bloomsbury Group. We asked exhibition curator Dr Rosamund Garrett to tell us about curating the display. 

Bloomsbury Art & Design installation.

In November I was appointed the new Bridget Riley Art Foundation Curatorial Assistant at The Courtauld Gallery, a unique role that allows me to work across the entire collection. With Dr Barnaby Wright, the Daniel Katz Curator of Twentieth-Century Art, I was charged with curating our current Special Display: Bloomsbury Art & Design.

This display brings together the highlights of the Courtauld’s collection of paintings, design drawings, ceramics and furniture by the artists from the Bloomsbury Group to look at the movement that shaped early twentieth-century modernism in Britain. It was my first project after having been completely immersed in my doctoral research in a rather different field – Renaissance tapestry – so I was eager to take up the challenge.

Given my specialisation in tapestry, I was keen to display the large rug designed by Duncan Grant, with its bold colours and eye-catching geometric design. Rugs are usually displayed on the floor, but with several large pieces of furniture featuring in the display, floor space was at a premium.  To ensure the rug could be shown I asked our Head Conservator, Graeme Barraclough, if we could do things a bit differently.

Tapestries are often displayed on slant boards: a board at a slight angle that allows the tapestry to be viewed vertically whilst its weight is gently supported across the entire surface. I thought that Grant’s rug would look striking displayed vertically on one of the short walls, and would complement the series of abstract rug designs that we intended to display beside it.

We started drawing up the plans for the slant board, but, after a thorough examination by conservation, the rug was found to be too fragile to be displayed in this way. Graeme, however, is never deterred. He and our technician, Matthew Thompson, devised a new method of display that combined a slant board with a roller, allowing us to display a section of the rug vertically whilst the roller holds most of the weight. Exhibitions always rely on the expertise, creativity and skills of many individuals, not to mention their physical presence – lifting the roller with the heavy rug onto our adapted slant board was no mean feat!

We are fortunate at The Courtauld to have such an extensive collection of Bloomsbury objects, many of which were given to us directly by one of the leaders of the Group, the artist and art critic Roger Fry. Why not pop in to Bloomsbury Art & Design to see the rug on our new display method as well as other works by the group of artists whose radical and experimental art introduced bold colours and dynamic abstract designs to the domestic interiors of Edwardian Britain.

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Until 21 September 2017

Last chance to see: Civic Utopia

 

We asked Dr Rachel Sloane, Assistant Curator of prints and Drawings to tell us about our latest display in the Drawings Gallery

Utopia

Over the course of 2016, every corner of Somerset House has been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the publication of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia with a rich and varied programme of exhibitions and events, UTOPIA 2016: A Year of Imagination and Possibility. The Courtauld Gallery’s own contribution to this celebration, A Civic Utopia: Architecture and the City in France, 1765-1837, is currently on view in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawing Gallery (to 8 January).

Civic Utopia considers the power of architecture and urban planning to shape and influence ideas of public life, focusing on the work of architects in France during and immediately after the Age of Enlightenment (1765-1837). Instead of focusing on grandiose (and often unrealised, or unrealisable) edifices, the emphasis is firmly on the everyday and on spaces where a broad cross-section of society mingled, including city markets, exchange halls, prisons, parks, abattoirs, hospitals and cemeteries. The exhibition has been organised in partnership with a major collection of architectural drawings, the Drawing Matter Trust, and we have been very fortunate to be able to work with them and display some of their treasures in the Drawing Gallery.

Although the main focus of Drawing Matter Trust, as its name suggests, is drawings, it also holds some fascinating three-dimensional objects, two of which are form part of the exhibition. In the centre of the gallery is a table on which are displayed – as in an architect’s office – drawings and watercolours depicting gateways and boundaries of cities, from a post-Revolutionary scheme for the Place de la Concorde by Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (1811) to a delicate black chalk drawing by Georges Michel of the Place and Barrière de la Nation, showing a much more open and convivial space than today’s traffic-clogged roundabout. The top of the table was designed and produced especially for the exhibition, but look beneath it and you’ll find two dazzling pieces of eighteenth-century craftsmanship: the trestle legs are journeyman pieces produced by cabinetmakers as a way of showing off their skills in the widest possible range of joinery techniques.

It is especially fitting that the exhibition is taking place within Somerset House, since William Chambers’s design follows many of the same principles that informed the utopian vision of the city that these architects pursued. Come and see these how these architects tackled the challenge of creating ideal urban spaces – and a living, breathing example of such a space.

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Tis ‘The Seasons’

This week a new display opened at The Courtauld Gallery following an important new acquisition of work by the American artist Jasper Johns (born 1930).

The Seasons

Between 1984 and 1991, Johns focused on the theme of the four seasons and produced a significant body of work, which included paintings, drawings and the nine prints gifted to The Courtauld Gallery. Johns’ The Seasons are complex works, weaving together themes relating to artistic creation, the passage of time and the artist’s own biography. Most prominently, Johns’ own shadow appears in each of the compositions, cast across themulti-layered imagery.

This body of work comes from the generosity of Barbara Bertozzi Castelli, the widow of Leo Castelli, the legendary New York dealer who ‘discovered’ Johns in the 1950s. It was with Castelli that Johns first exhibited The Seasons series in 1987. The works bear a personal dedication —‘For Leo’— in pencil on each sheet. This gift was made possible by The American Foundation for The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to view Johns’ work, rarely shown in the United Kingdom on display in room 14.

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Bruegel in Black & White: A Tree-mendous Discovery

Displays offer not only the possibility to see masterpieces in a different light and a different context but in preparing them, curators and conservators carry out a lot of research on the works. Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited was no exception, but the investigation yielded exceptional results.

Bruegel 3b

The techniques used to examine Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s three surviving paintings in grisaille ranged from xrays to infrared photography (which allows us to see any drawing below the paint) to analysis of the wood panels that Bruegel painted on.

We also used a scientific method called Dendrochronology which enables us to date wood based on the analysis of the patterns left by the tree (or growth) rings. By comparison with other data, it can date when the rings were formed to the exact calendar year and can thus estimate when the tree was cut down. In some areas of the world, it is possible to date wood back a few thousand years. This works particularly well with oak, which Bruegel favoured for his paintings.

Ian Tyers, a dendrochronology specialist, was able to ascertain that The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery was painted on a panel made from a 200-year old oak tree from the eastern Baltic region of Europe (present-day Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). The tree was cut down after 1550, transformed into a standard size board and shipped to the Netherlands. This date corresponds well to the painting, which is signed and dated 1565. The tree was radially cut (that is to say across the centre of the trunk), as it was already well known at the time that this type of cut minimized warping and distortion.

The support of another grisaille in the exhibition, the stunning Death of the Virgin (National Trust, Upton House), was also analysed. There too, the wooden panel came from an oak tree in the eastern Baltic, cut down after 1553. This particular tree must have been especially majestic as tree-ring analysis indicates that it was already growing in 1228 and had a diameter of more than a metre when it was cut down. More strikingly, at least three panels made from that one tree were used by Bruegel to paint three works of identical size: The Death of the Virgin, Winter Landscape with Bird Trap (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels) and The Courtauld’s own Landscape with the Flight into Egypt. Parts of this extraordinary Baltic oak thus live on at The Courtauld this spring. Come and see for yourself!

Bruegel in Black & White: Three Grisailles Reunited, until 8 May 2016

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