Cataloguing 8,000 prints in The Courtauld Collection
Elizabeth Jacklin, Print Cataloguer for the Esmée Fairbairn cataloguing project.
I recently joined The Courtauld Gallery as Print Cataloguer for the Esmée Fairbairn Project, an 18 month project focused on the print collection.
The Courtauld collection includes around 20,000 original prints, but about 8000 of these are not currently catalogued.
It is my job to look at these prints, to learn about them, and to create accurate object records for each of them.
Once the prints are catalogued it will be easier to manage and research the print collection – it also means the prints can be accessed by visitors to the Prints and Drawings Study Room
When I look at a print, one of the first questions I ask myself is, how was it made?
There are many different printmaking techniques used in western art, some dating back hundreds of years. ‘Intaglio’ prints are usually made by incising lines into a metal plate.
Two common techniques are engraving, when a tool is used to engrave directly into a metal plate, and etching.
Etchers work on a plate that has first been covered with a wax ground – the etching needle draws into soft wax rather than the hard metal, and it is dipping the plate into acid that incises the lines into the metal before the plate can be inked, wiped and printed from.
So how do I know if the prints are etchings or engravings?
I look through a magnifying glass for signs such as the greater freedom of line in an etching, and the tapered edges of marks made by the engraver. Often, prints include a mixture of the two techniques.
The other categories of printmaking are ‘relief’ prints and ‘planographic’ prints. There are many different techniques within each of these categories, and many types of printed mark to distinguish.
My favourite relief prints are woodcuts, made by printing from a block of wood that has been skilfully cut into with tools.
Once I’ve identified the technique, my next challenge is to work out who made the print and when.
Whilst drawings tend to be made by one artist, prints often have a more complicated story.
Many of the prints in The Courtauld collection were made by a printmaker working from a design by another artist, so both the printmaker and the artist need to be recorded, along with their life dates and nationalities.
I get this information from printed inscriptions that are part of the designs; these often also include a date.
When there are no inscriptions it can take quite a bit of research to identify the artists and period for the print. So far, the prints I’ve been working with range from 17th century to early 20th century in terms of production dates.
The next step is to record a title for the print, and to describe the content of the image using keywords such as ‘portrait’.
I measure each print and note the technique and materials.
I might also make a note about the condition of the print, for example if there is a stain on the paper. It is also essential to record the print’s storage location, so that my colleagues can find it.
All of this information and more is added to the The Courtauld Gallery’s collection database, so I spend quite a lot of time at the computer.
During the duration of the Esmée Fairbairn Project, I aim to catalogue 6000-8000 prints.
I’ll keep you posted on my progress!Categories: Collection | Tags: catalogue, engraving, etching, prints, woodcut | 5 comments