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