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The Courtauld Gallery Print Collection

The Courtauld Gallery Print Collection

The Courtauld Gallery’s print collection is a ‘collection of collections’ – notably those of two of the Courtauld Institute’s founders, Samuel Courtauld (1876-1947) and Sir Robert Witt (1872-1952), as well as the bequest of Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978). Highlights from the collection are currently on public display in an exhibition entitled ‘Brueghel to Freud: Prints from the Courtauld Gallery’. This exhibition brilliantly illustrates the various techniques and purposes of printmaking from the fifteenth century to the present: as a form of reproduction and dissemination in a pre-photographic age, as a means of conveying scientific, geographical or historical information, and as an educational tool – whether artistic, moral or religious.

Samuel Courtauld came from a wealthy family of industrialists in the textile business. He began his art collection in 1922, focusing on French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, who were still little appreciated in Britain at this time – and the prints he collected mirror this interest. After the Courtauld Institute of Art was founded in 1932, he gifted numerous works before bequeathing the rest of his collection on his death in 1947. Of these, the exhibition displays an early etching of a female nude by Manet, ‘La Toilette’ (1862); Gauguin’s ‘Auti Te Pape (Women at the River)’ (1893-4), a wood engraving using several different techniques to achieve varying effects of line and texture; Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithograph ‘The Jockey’ (1899); and Matisse’s ‘Seated Nude Woman with a Tulle Blouse’ (1925) which marked a return to lithography for the artist during this mature phase of his career.

It is Sir Robert Witt’s collection of prints, however, which forms the bulk of the collection, as well as its educational character. Witt began compiling photographic reproductions of works of art while a student at Oxford University, a hobby which developed into a vast archive of over 500,000 images and a resource of international importance for scholars of art history – described by Witt himself in 1920 as ‘a kind of Murray’s Dictionary of Pictures and Drawings’.

This formed the basis of the Witt Library after the creation of the Courtauld Institute in 1932. Prints were selected and treated in the same way (though transferred from the library to the gallery’s collection for conservation purposes in 1990). Witt was drawn towards Old Masters of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, choosing works for their quality and educational purpose rather than their fame – only a very small proportion could be termed ‘master prints’ as opposed to reproductions, despite the latter having distinct artistic merit in their own right. Some of the more rare and important works from Witt’s collection that are now on show include an engraving by Cornelis Cort after Johannes Stradanus entitled ‘The Practice of the Visual Arts’ (c.1573); Jacques Callot’s etching ‘The Fan (the Battle of King Weaver and King Dyer)’ (1619) created to be stuck to a fan to celebrate these Florentine guilds’ festivities; and William Hogarth’s typically ribald and moralistic engravings ‘Before’ and ‘After’ (1736).

A trustee of the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, Witt also played a leading role in the establishment of the National Art Collections Fund in 1903, of which he was chairman from 1921-1945. The purpose of this organisation was to purchase important works of art from European private houses, which were being sold off in great numbers following the war, and donate them to national collections; he also campaigned for a system of loans with other countries.

As a public figure and a private collector, then, Witt was driven by both the furtherance of art education and the preservation of his national heritage. Count Antoine Seilern was an Anglo-Austrian art collector and scholar with a particular interest in Rubens, whose collection dates from 1931. In the early 1930s he studied with the Hungarian art historian Johannes Wilde in Vienna; Wilde was later appointed deputy director of the Courtauld Institute and persuaded him to leave the majority of his collection – known as the Princes Gate Collection – to the gallery upon his death. The prints, largely collected between 1951-66, reflect Seilern’s admiration for Old Masters and were often purchased alongside drawings or paintings by the same artist. For instance, Mantegna’s preparatory engraving for ‘The Flagellation’ (c.1465-70); Parmigianino’s ‘The Entombment’ (before 1530); Christoffel Jegher’s ‘The Temptation of Christ’ (1633), a woodcut after Rubens’ painting; Tiepolo’s ‘Death Giving Audience’ (1743), one of the ‘Vari Capricci’ of which Seilern bought a complete set alongside several drawings by the artist. Also noteworthy is the etching ‘Rabbit Hunt’ (1560) by Pieter Breughel the Elder which is the only example of a print by the artist’s own hand. However, more modern printmakers are also represented in the collection, notably by Berthe Morisot’s 1889 drypoint self-portrait with her daughter and Oskar Kokoschka’s bound volume of lithographs in the style of primitive woodcuts entitled ‘The Dreaming Youths’ (1907). Other gifts and bequests – from Henry Oppenheimer, who in 1933 bequeathed his complete set of Canaletto’s Views of Venice; from Lilian Browse, who gifted modern French and British works on paper in 1982, including Pierre Bonnard lithographs; from Alastair Hunter’s bequest in 1984; and more recently from Frank Auerbach in 2012 and from Charles Booth-Clibborn’s donation of contemporary prints published by the Paragon Press – have developed the collection to encompass an even broader sweep of art history through this fascinating and versatile medium.

Written by Kitty Hudson PhD, Freelance Art Writer.