The Courtauld Gallery is currently exhibiting highlights from its print collection, of which the bulk was bequeathed by two of the Courtauld Institute’s founders, Samuel Courtauld and Sir Robert Witt, as well as art collector and scholar Count Antoine Seilern.
Courtauld, whose family wealth derived from the textile industry, was one of the first British collectors to show real interest in the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists and built up his collection of their work predominantly during the 1920s. His prints were selected to complement the paintings he owned by artists such as Manet, Gauguin, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec – each of whom is represented in this show. Manet’s early etching, ‘La Toilette’ (1862) shows him experimenting with the medium and with the subject of the female nude in a slightly crude sketchy manner that is difficult to tally with the polished dexterity of ‘Olympia’ just a year later. Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘Jockey’ (above, 1899) is typical of his assured line and snapshot-style view of contemporary life, the horse leaping into the frame with legs splayed like a can-can dancer’s.
Sir Robert Witt, who lends his name to the Witt Library, was more interested in the quality and educational value of prints than the fame of their producer. Having amassed a vast archive of photographic reproductions that became a hugely important resource for scholars of art history (and still is today), prints were considered by him in a similar manner – as a didactic resource. Now many of these prints have been transferred from the Witt Library to the gallery’s print collection for conservation purposes. Among those now on view is Jacques Callot’s etching ‘The Fan (The Battle of of King Weaver and King Dyer)’ (above, 1619) which was designed to be stuck on a static fan and purchased by spectators of these Florentine guilds’ festivities on the Arno.
Count Antoine Seilern was an Anglo-Austrian art enthusiast who studied in Vienna in the early 1930s with Johannes Wilde, and it was Wilde’s appointment as deputy director of the Courtauld under Anthony Blunt which persuaded Seilern to bequeath some of his collection to the gallery on his death in 1978. The collection was begun in 1931, with the majority of prints being purchased between 1951 and 1966. Seilern’s interest lay in the Old Masters – especially Rubens – and the prints were often bought alongside a painting or drawings by the same artist, to complement these media or to illustrate the artist’s working methods. For example, Mantegna’s preparatory engraving for ‘The Flagellation’ (c.1465-70) and Christoffel Jegher’s ‘The Temptation of Christ’ (1633), a woodcut after Rubens’ painting. Tiepolo’s ‘Death Giving Audience’ (above right, 1743) was bought as part of a complete set of ‘Vari Capricci’.
Also selected from Seilern’s collection (known as the Prince’s Gate Collection) are Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s ‘Rabbit Hunt’ (above, 1560), the only known etching by the artist’s own hand and full of incident as any of his lustrous skating scenes; and Piranesi’s ‘Smoking Fire’ (c.1749-60), an Escher-like architectural labyrinth – on a large scale for a print – the etched lines full of expressive and visionary energy.
This core collection has been added to by many more gifts and bequests over the years. One of the earliest, in 1933 (the year after the founding of the Institute) came from Henry Oppenheimer, from whose complete set of Canaletto’s Views of Venice is displayed the etching ‘Portico with a Lantern’ (above, c.1741-44), its vibrating lines describing the crumbling plasterwork and the shimmering heat of the Venetian summer. More recent exhibits include a Lucian Freud etching (‘Blonde Girl’, 1985) from Frank Auerbach, and a Chris Ofili etching of 1996 donated by Charles Booth-Clibborn of print publishers The Paragon Press.
As so often, the Courtauld manages to achieve an illuminating and exquisite exhibition in just one small room. The exhibition reveals not only some of the most accomplished examples of printmaking over almost five centuries, but in doing so illustrates the different techniques as well as the variety of functions these prints fulfilled – from early promotional or educational tools, to a means of conveying information through maps and illustrations. As Witt anticipated, the collection is an astutely-selected education in Western art history and this show is a perfect miniature.