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

Coming soon: Regarding Trees in the Drawings Gallery

With our new display Regarding Trees in the Drawings Gallery opening later this week, we ask Curator Dr Rachel Sloan to tells us about it: 

Regarding Trees
Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) , Tree in winter, c.1504
Thomas Hearne (1744-1817), The Chestnut Tree at Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire, 1789
Gilles van Coninxloo (1544-1607), Wood landscape, c. 1598-00

Devising a display of drawings of trees is a task as daunting as it is tantalising: how do you narrow down your selection to a reasonable size for an intimate gallery when you’re working with a subject so common and so central in the history of art? When I was first asked to curate Regarding Trees, I was overjoyed, until I did a keyword search for ‘tree’ in our collection database and turned up a total of 528 drawings. How could I ever cut that down to twenty – and how could I give the display some shape?

An answer appeared, in all places, in an 18th-century treatise on the aesthetics of landscape: the Reverend William Gilpin’s Remarks on Forest Scenery, and Other Woodland Views (1791). Gilpin was a highly influential theorist whose writings were very important to Romantic artists and writers, and he organised his book in a way that actually does allow the reader to see the forest from the trees: he begins by discussing individual trees with a level of almost portrait-like detail, moves on to the role of the tree within landscape, and finishes with a meditation on forest scenes. I decided to follow Gilpin’s framework in creating a structure for the display, which opens with ‘portraits’ of trees, followed by drawings of single trees within landscapes, and concludes with four forest views.

The earliest work in the display is a delicate study of a leafless tree by the Florentine artist Fra Bartolommeo, one of the earliest known European drawings of a tree apparently produced for its own sake, rather than for the background of a religious or mythological scene. Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican monk, and his obvious delight in nature stemmed from the teachings of Saint Francis that the beauty of nature should be regarded as evidence of the love of God.

Many of the other drawings on view are remarkable for their vigour and animation: the trees look as if they’re about to move of their own accord. Gillis van Coninxloo’s enchanting Wood Landscape plunges the viewer into the understory of a wood with its thick crowns of foliage and deep shadows. Coninxloo’s energetic penwork conveys a sense of movement, as if the trees were tossed by a strong breeze. If you’ve ever been entranced by the dark energy of the forest paintings of seventeenth-century Dutch artists like Jacob van Ruisdael, Coninxloo’s forests are their starting point.

One of the most exciting discoveries I made while working on Regarding Trees was a watercolour of a huge, gnarled tree in a landscape by the eighteenth-century British draughtsman Thomas Hearne. It was catalogued as Landscape with a large oak, but a bit of research determined that not only was the tree not an oak, it was a chestnut, and a famous one at that – the great chestnut at Little Wymondley, Hertfordshire. When Hearne made the watercolour, in 1789, the tree was recorded as having a girth of forty-two feet and local legend claimed that it had been planted by the Romans. Best of all, it was so celebrated that Gilpin devoted a page to it in Remarks on Forest Scenery.

The Little Wymondley chestnut still stands today, although now on private land that is difficult to access. Why not come instead to see Hearne’s watercolour of it at its most splendid – and some of its many cousins throughout the ages?

 

Regarding Trees runs 18 June-25 September 2016

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Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy

Our Botticelli and Treasures from the Hamilton Collection exhibition is currently under way and the Prints and Drawings Study Room is also celebrating Dante’s Divine Comedy. We asked Alexander J. Noelle, Print Room Assistant, to tell us more:

As a doctoral student whose research focuses on the Italian Renaissance, I was thrilled when I heard that the Gallery was planning an exhibition of Botticelli’s exceptional drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, now on view. I thought that the arrival of these masterworks would provide an excellent opportunity to showcase related prints from the Courtauld’s collection of works on paper. In my role as a Print Room Assistant, I began searching through the 26,000 prints to select a small group for a temporary display in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. What I found was the first full set of widely distributed illustrations for Dante’s epic poem.

In 1792, British sculptor John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) designed 111 plates depicting the complete narrative of Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Although other artists had responded to the visually evocative text before Flaxman, he was the first to draw an illustration for every canto (an Italian term for the sections of a long poem) and, through print, disseminate his work to a wide audience. Flaxman was praised for his ability to reduce Dante’s complex language to simple symbolic icons that still managed to capture the spiritual essence of the story.

Flaxman Dante Title

Title Page: Compositions from the Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, of Dante Alighieri, by John Flaxman, Sculptor. Tommaso Piroli (ca.1752-1824) after John Flaxman (1755-1826), 1793 (1807 edition), engraving.

The prints certainly look modern when compared to Botticelli’s depictions, yet when they were first published they were celebrated as belonging stylistically to the age of Dante himself. Flaxman was living in Rome when he drew the illustrations, actively studying artworks made by ‘primitive’ Medieval and Renaissance artists, and sometimes copying exact motifs into his illustrations. This influence, combined with the simple outline design, led Flaxman’s contemporaries to associate his drawings with Dante’s own era.

The sixteen prints on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room correspond to specific drawings of the same canti by Botticelli in the Gallery. While it is unlikely that Flaxman saw Botticelli’s own illustrations, the comparisons query whether the viewer today can see the Renaissance influence in Flaxman’s prints.

Installation Shot

 

‘Drawn from the Age of Dante: John Flaxman’s Illustrations of the Divine Comedy’ is on view in the Prints and Drawings Study Room until 15 May. See opening times here.

There is also the opportunity to hear Alexander do a lunchtime talk in the Gallery on this exhibition at 1:15pm on Thursday 10 March. 

A Closer Look: Discovering the story of William Hogarth’s Before and After by Zoe Dostal

During the Print Room Open House ‘Storylines’, from 25-29 January, postgraduate Print Room Assistants are presenting artworks that explore the variety of methods artists use to tell a story. When preparing my own presentation for William Hogarth’s engravings Before and After, I additionally wanted to consider the ‘story’ of the physical object itself. Kate Edmondson, Conservator of Works on Paper for the Courtauld Gallery, guided my exploration of the objects’ histories from the fabrication of the paper to the application of the ink, through the hands of collectors and conservators to storage and display at The Courtauld.

Hogarth Before

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), Before (1736), etching and engraving

Hogarth After

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), After (1736), etching and engraving

Before and After are generally in very good condition, yet small irregularities or imperfections provide clues to the making of the prints. ‘Raking light’ is one of the conservator’s simplest and most useful tools. Simply shining light across the paper at a low angle reveals the texture of the paper and medium, details that are generally imperceptible to the naked eye. Examining Before in raking light reveals a raised vertical line extending from the top edge of the paper towards the center of the image. My first instinct was to assume that this was a tear or accidental fold. But Kate determined that because the ink is neither interrupted nor distorted, as it would be by a tear or fold, this mark is actually a natural crease resulting from the paper making process.

Vertical crease

Detail of vertical crease in normal reflected light

Vertical crease 2

Detail of raised vertical crease in normal raking light

A more noticeable blemish on Before is located just above the dog’s head, on the skirt of the female figure. This small, round, bare patch at first appears to be the result of damage. However, examining the mark under the stereomicroscope, Kate deduced that this imperfection occurred during the printing process. The outline of ink that delineates the bare spot tells the story of how the raised surface of an accretion, or an unknown foreign body, disrupted the application of the inked design and caused the ink to pool. (Imagine rainwater pooling around the bottom of a hill, creating a ring of water around the base.) It was likely that the accretion was sitting on the surface of the paper as it was pressed to the printing plate. Today the accretion is no longer there, leaving the small, un-inked circular patch.

Skirt

Close up detail of missing media lower centre of skirt

Furthermore, raking light reveals that After was previously folded in half across the middle. Kate explained that such a strong fold such as this is difficult to completely remove because paper retains an irrevocable ‘memory’ of such deformations. But one way to try and reduce its visual distraction is to apply a repair on the verso along the fold to “ease” out the noticeable ridge. In this case a Japanese paper (a strong, lightweight, translucent paper) was applied with conservation grade adhesive across the whole of the verso. The Japanese paper lining tells the most recent story of the prints, when they became part of The Courtauld’s collection and were prepared for display. The conservation efforts minimize the visibility of the imperfections of the print for the viewer, but are also completely reversible, allowing for the story of the object to continue evolving in the future.

After in normal

After in normal reflected light

After in raking

After in raking light revealing horizontal fold across the middle

To discover these stories and more of Hogarth’s Before and After, all are welcome to stop by the Print Room Open House on Wednesday 27 January from 1:30-5pm.

Print openings

Don’t Miss the Next Open House Week! (January 25-29, 2016)

The fourth installment of our Prints and Drawings Open House, entitled Storylines, begins on Monday, January 25th!

For one week only, the Courtauld Prints and Drawings Study Room Assistants will be presenting a selection of some of the most striking drawings and prints from the Gallery’s rich collection of works on paper. The aim of this Open House is to highlight the role of prints and drawings as storytellers and explore the different ways in which biblical, literary and mythological tales, as well as lived historical events, are narrated in graphic media from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

Between 1.30pm and 5pm every day this week our doors will be open without any appointment necessary, and each work will be on display for one day only.  Our friendly Print Room Assistants will introduce their selected prints and drawings to the public and will be on hand to discuss them and answer questions. The students and gallery visitors are warmly invited to drop by to see these rarely displayed works, learn more about the devices which artists use to tell stories visually, and engage in a lively discussion which these works will undoubtedly facilitate.

This Monday (January 25th), we will be starting the Open House with Michelangelo’s energetic pen and ink depiction of the central episode in the Passion, which shows Christ brought as a prisoner before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. On Tuesday (January 26th), the Ovidian tale of Atalanta, a virgin huntress who refused to marry any of her suitors unless they could best her in a footrace, will be explored in Guercino’s large-scale Race of Atalanta. This will be followed by a pair of satirical prints, Before and After, by William Hogarth on Wednesday 27th and by Honoré Daumier’s theatrical interpretation of Molière’s comedy The Hypochondriac (Thursday 28th). The week will conclude with Henry Moore’s poignant Shelter Drawing, produced during the Second World War.

 

The following works will be the focus of each day’s session:

 

Monday (25 January): presented by Tatiana Bissolati

Open week blog Bissolati

Michelangelo (1475-1564), Christ before Pilate (c. 1516), pen and ink and red chalk on paper, D.1978.PG.422

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday (26 January): presented by Alexander J. Noelle

Guercino

Guercino (1591 – 1666), Race of Atalanta (c. 1625), pen and ink, black chalk on paper and canvas, D.1953.WF.4593

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday (27 January): presented by Zoe Dostal

Hogarth Before

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), Before (1736), etching and engraving, G.1990.WL.2005

Hogarth After

William Hogarth (1697 – 1764), After (1736), etching and engraving, G.1990.WL.2006

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday (28 January): presented by Camilla Pietrabissa

Honore

Honoré Victorin Daumier (1808-1879), Le Malade imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) (c. 1850), black chalks, black ink wash, watercolour and touches of bodycolour with pen and point of the brush in brown and black-grey ink on laid paper, D.1934.SC.113

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday (29 January): presented by Bryony Bartlett-Rawlings

Henry

Henry Spencer Moore (1898 – 1986), Shelter Drawing (1942), charcoal and watercolour on paper, D.1982.LB.15