Joanna Selborne, Esmée Fairbairn Cataloguing Project Manager.
Purpose and Process is the outcome of an Esmée-Fairbairn funded project to finish cataloguing a collection of prints that came to the Gallery from the Witt Library in 1990. For the cataloguer Lizzie Jacklin and me, both of us print fanatics, preparing it was an exciting and challenging task, not the least having to select a mere 26 works from over 23,000.
The prints were originally part of the vast photographic image bank of European paintings and drawings up to around 1850 acquired by Robert Witt for reference purposes, and left by him to the Courtauld in 1952. Its scope was hugely extended with the arrival of much nineteenth and twentieth century illustrative material from the H.J. Cornish Collection.
Trawling through over 19,000 Witt Library boxes, I found around 2,200 prints suitable for transfer to the Gallery, a few of which are included in the display. Finding a theme was tricky as the collection is so diverse in subject matter and technique.
We narrowed the field by confining the national schools represented to British and French, the areas Lizzie was working on. There were otherwise no obvious unifying characteristics, apart from the fact that most of the Witt prints are reproductive. This means that they were made by professional printmakers after artists’ work, often in sets or series.
Although there are some very fine original prints (i.e. artists’ prints) in the collection, we chose a token few, since the gems of the Courtauld’s print collection could be seen nearby in the Bruegel to Freud exhibition. How and why the prints were made seemed a logical way of uniting our selection in particular with the Witt Print Collection as a whole.
With this idea in mind we set out to make art historical and visual links between disparate images, such as Bible scenes for a Psalter, an instructional plate from Diderot’s dictionary, an artist’s portrait, a Hogarth satire, topographical views, narrative scenes for popular literary and art magazines, and a turn of the century French poster-style Parisian view.
From luxurious labour-intensive copper engraving to cheaply printable wood engravings and lithographs, by way of etching and mezzotint, we aimed to show the extent to which print technology was influenced by the demands of the print and publishing trades.
The display also gave us a chance to reveal some discoveries made during the project, notably a rare French seventeenth-century etching by Jaques Stella and one of the few prints from J.M.W.Turner’s Liber Studiorum series made by the artist himself.
Find our more about Purpose and Process: British and French Printmaking 1600-1900.