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

The word on drawings!

 

Reading Drawings is our latest display in the Gilbert and Ildiko Butler Drawings Gallery. We asked curator Dr Rachel Hapoienu to tell us about the display and how it came about. 

The subject of inscriptions on drawings was an especially enticing one for me to tackle, as my role as the Drawings Cataloguer (IMAF Project) for The Courtauld Gallery requires me to examine every one of our over 7,000 drawings and meticulously record each inscription and mark. My initial list of potential objects for this display ran to a few hundred works, posing a serious challenge in how to narrow it down.

I knew I wanted to include a large section on signatures and names – these are the most common types of inscriptions, and though their frequency might make them seem a bit banal, for a cataloguer a signature is always exciting! However, this display urges caution in declaring a signature as genuine, because sometimes later owners added names of artists to the drawings they owned, and of course some forgers created fake signatures to deceive buyers into thinking their works were executed by a famous master.  One such drawing in this display, depicting a female nude, is a forgery in the manner of Rodin. The forger, known to scholars simply as ‘Hand B’, attempted to replicate both Rodin’s style and his signature. Closer inspection of the forger’s lines reveals that he applied pressure with his pencil too evenly throughout both the figure and the fake name, which is uncharacteristic of Rodin’s technique. This discrepancy combined with the figure’s unsophisticated anatomy and the prevalence of unnecessary lines helped to identify this work as a deliberate forgery.

Forgery in the manner of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Female nude, around 1917-1920

One drawing I knew I had to include is attributed to an artist in Raphael’s studio. The sheet is split in half, with text on the upper portion and below a somewhat puzzling scene of soldiers in a tent surrounding a bare-chested man drinking from a goblet. By comparing the imagery to paintings, prints and drawings with similar iconography, I determined the scene may be of ‘Alexander the Great and his physician’, showing the moment Alexander downs his medicine. Adding to the intriguing quality of this sheet is the text, which was written before the image was drawn. It lists the days of the week with corresponding food items, mainly bread and meat. The idea of keeping a ‘food diary’ is probably familiar to many of our visitors, and offers a charming parallel with the author of the inscription, who lived around 500 years ago. This sheet also helps evoke the atmosphere of a Renaissance workshop, where drawings were not considered prized works of art and every spare bit of paper was utilised.

 

Studio of Raphael (1483-1520), Alexander the Great drinking his medicine, around 1520s

I also wanted to highlight the different reasons artists might annotate their own works. Many of their notes were intended as instructions or explanations for an assistant or another artist, such as an engraver who was meant to transform the drawing into a print, or an architect who would use the drawing as a plan for constructing a building. Sometimes artists were trying so quickly to capture a scene out-of-doors that they would scribble notes to themselves on how to fill in the details once back in the relative calm of their studio.  In the current display, one of the most interesting methods of note-taking is demonstrated by a drawing of Cader Idris in Wales, by James Ward. In one three-month period Ward made over 500 landscape sketches, so he would use a rapid writing system called ‘shorthand’ to facilitate such productivity. In this strange-looking script, each symbol represents a word, and thus is a quicker method than using the conventional alphabet. Ward’s shorthand notes are mainly instructions to himself on what colour washes should be added to each area of the landscape.

James Ward (1769-1859), View of Cader Idris, Wales, 1802 or 1807

Another priority for me was to highlight drawings that have rarely, if ever, been on display before – The Courtauld has so many drawings that inevitably many never see the light of day. Of the twenty-three drawings on view, eight had previously never been exhibited, so a visit to Reading Drawings offers a rare opportunity to see some gems from our collection!

By Dr Rachel Hapoienu

 

Reading DrawingsOn display until 4 June 2017

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