Designed to Impress: Highlights from the Fitzwilliam Museum Print Collection

Exhibition Review

  • "Designed to Impress: Highlights from the Fitzwilliam Museum Print Collection"

  • The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, United Kingdom
  • 03 Apr 2012 - 07 Oct 2012

There is an undeniable charm to historic print rooms and the Charrington, the setting for this display of highlights from the Fitzwilliam’s print collections, is just such a space, a calm retreat lined with presses and tucked away behind a suite of galleries where one can well imagine visitors have whiled away many an hour over the years. “No more delectable way of spending a morning could be pursued” a visitor to a similar print room enthused in 1825, “than in feeding the mind, without toil to the body, by such a medium.” Paramount to the pleasures of these edifying experiences were “an urbane smile, a quiet room refreshingly cool, easy chairs and magnificent folios.”1 Though established in 1936, and therefore comparatively young by the standards of other great British and European print rooms, the Charrington exudes the atmosphere of quiet study necessary for any thorough perusal of works in this intimate medium. Here the Fitzwilliam’s print curators mounted an ambitious programme of displays, including the current show of ‘highlights’, a small selection of works from the Fitzwilliam’s collections of around 100,000–125,000 prints.

Claude Drevet, Henri-Oswald de la Tour d’Auvergne (1749), engraving, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, plate 50.6 x 38.0 cm. Given by John Charrington 1933, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Claude Drevet, Henri-Oswald de la Tour d’Auvergne (1749), engraving, after Hyacinthe Rigaud, plate 50.6 x 38.0 cm. Given by John Charrington 1933, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

According to one of its curators, Elenor Ling, the display has been scheduled to coincide with the museum’s busiest tourist season, when staff typically receive a marked increase in requests from visitors for well-known prints by famous artists. Highlights displays can be tricky, and the Fitzwilliam’s curators have set themselves quite a task, space constraints dictating they represent the cream of over 430 years of printmaking in just 36 objects. Attempting to cover such an expanse of artistic production without a central theme to connect the works, as the curators have done, might easily run the risk of a disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying display. Ling confirms that, inevitably, many deserving works fell by the wayside in the selection process. Perhaps in an attempt to excuse such omissions, the curators are swift to emphasize in their introductory text panel that the display is not intended as a historical survey of printmaking. In truth, however, any selection of work that includes some of the medium’s finest practitioners arranged in a more-or-less chronological order will inevitably assume this role for much of its audience. At any rate, the display easily fulfills its stated objective, to reveal works from the collection that count either beauty, strength of feeling, idiosyncrasy, rarity, skillfulness or invention among their chief qualities and in particular works that “use the vehicle of printmaking with a potency that would not have had the same effect (or affect) in another medium.”

Hendrik Goltzius, Icarus (1588), engraving, after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, plate 33.2 cm in diameter (sheet trimmed irregularly on platemark). Given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum 1990, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Hendrik Goltzius, Icarus (1588), engraving, after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, plate 33.2 cm in diameter (sheet trimmed irregularly on platemark). Given by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum 1990, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

While “Designed to Impress” duly features the work of such artists one would hope and expect to find in a collection of the Fitzwilliam’s quality, including Dürer, Schongauer, Raimondi, Van Dyck and Whistler, the curators have made an admirable attempt to showcase an array of more unusual offerings from such well-known printmakers. The Fitzwilliam boasts one of the most important collections of Rembrandt prints in the United Kingdom, and here is a wonderful opportunity to see two impressions of Rembrandt’s (1606–1669) The Three Crosses (‘Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves’) side by side, including the only known impression of this state on vellum. Through such means the viewer gains an invaluable insight into the printmaker’s mode of working, notably the degree to which he altered a composition over successive states, described by one scholar as a ‘restless probing’,2 and is reminded of his experiments printing on other surfaces such as silk and vellum. To such rarities can be added Albrecht Altdorfer’s (c. 1482/5– 1538) Landscape with a shaded cliff, with its early foreshadowing of expansive romantic landscapes, one of five known impressions, and a first edition set of Goya’s (1746-1828) Los Caprichos bound with a contemporary handwritten text.

One of the display’s principal aims is to convey the “outrageous skillfulness” of the printmaker and here it excels with the inclusion of examples of virtuoso engravers Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617) and Claude Drevet (1697–1781). The appeal and merits of Goltzius’s oeuvre transcend time. There is a startling freshness, even modernity, to his illusionistic rendering of Icarus’s ill-fated flight, the second plate from The Four Disgracers series. Each plate depicts the downfall of a different mythological figure and collectively they are thought to be the artist’s jubilant response to the humiliation of Philip II of Spain on the defeat of his Armada.3 Rippling musculature was the perfect channel for Goltzius’s pioneering technique of intersecting curved and swollen lines and Icarus’s limbs pulsate with life as he shields his eyes from the blinding glare of the sun, plummeting to his death. The sensation of falling is heightened by the extreme foreshortening Goltzius employs, creating the trompe l’œil effect that Icarus is on the point of tumbling through the picture plane.

Edgar Degas, Woman at her toilet: the washbasin (c.1880-83), monotype, plate 27.5 x 30.8 cm. Bequeathed by A. S. F. Gow through the National Art Collections Fund 1978, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Edgar Degas, Woman at her toilet: the washbasin (c.1880-83), monotype, plate 27.5 x 30.8 cm. Bequeathed by A. S. F. Gow through the National Art Collections Fund 1978, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Two centuries later a similar pinnacle of engraving was reached by the Drevet dynasty, represented in the display by its youngest member, Claude Drevet. In his lifetime Drevet only engraved nine portraits, five of these after Hyacinthe Rigaud, but the results clearly show him to be the equal of his more famous and certainly more prolific relations. The sitter here is the much-decorated Cardinal of Auvergne, later Archbishop of Vienna, Henri Oswald de la Tour. Drevet’s supreme mastery of engraving is the star throughout; wielding the burin with characteristic precision he records every detail of the luxurious textiles that reinforce La Tour’s image as a man of wealth and position. The lace rochet, the ermine cape, the plush velvet tunic, the lustre of the silk damask upholstery all are rendered with a sublime realism designed to overwhelm the 18th century spectator with their conspicuous opulence and to underscore the skill of the printmaker. The staggering amount of labour and degree of dexterity required to execute such a composition were commonly interpreted as an act of homage to the sitter on the part of the artist.4

In their selection the curators are also eager to illustrate the role of printmaking in the broader artistic repertoire. A monotype by Degas, an artist not popularly associated with printmaking in the public consciousness, is an interesting addition. Though not 30 Art in Print May – June 2012 the most exciting example of this artist’s foray into printmaking, the rudimentary nude on display is nonetheless significant as an example of Degas’s evolving artistic practise, comprising the first stage in a process devised for a series of monotype base pastels that occupies a rather singular position in the artist’s œuvre. This dark and rather gloomy impression would have received a second layer in pastels, adding colour and depth to the printed foundation. Many such monotypes, unfinished works waiting to receive their pastel overlay, were found languishing in Degas’s studio after his death.5

Louis Jean Desprez, Chimera of Mr. Desprez (c.1770), etching, plate 32.5 x 38.1 cm. Bought 1993, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Louis Jean Desprez, Chimera of Mr. Desprez (c.1770), etching, plate 32.5 x 38.1 cm. Bought 1993, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

For those visitors perhaps less interested in the technical potential and nuances of the medium there are other prints that will capture the imagination. Louis-Jean Desprez’s (1743–1804) grotesque vision of a chimera depicts the monster mid-feast—the chimera was described on a later state of the print as a devourer of animals and “unwary travellers.”6 Its symbolism may continue to be debated but Max Klinger’s (1857–1920) Bear and Fairy doesn’t fail to delight and one hopes the artist’s work, which currently enjoys something of a cult status among print specialists, will continue to gain a wider audience beyond this realm. In light of the recent record-breaking auction result for Edvard Munch’s (1862–1944) pastel version of The Scream at Sotheby’s, New York,7 the artist’s eerie and claustrophobic etching Desire makes a topical addition to the display.

Max Klinger, Bear and Fairy (1881), etching and aquatint printed on chine collé, plate 42 x 28.8 cm. Bequeathed by Henry Scipio Reitlinger 1991, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Max Klinger, Bear and Fairy (1881), etching and aquatint printed on chine collé, plate 42 x 28.8 cm. Bequeathed by Henry Scipio Reitlinger 1991, ©The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Owing perhaps to a not unnatural desire to showcase the great strengths of the Fitzwilliam’s collections—its old masters— and no doubt also to the ever-dwindling acquisition budgets faced by many British museums, visitors will find 20th-century prints thinly represented by Picasso, Georges Roualt, Adja Yunkers and Richard Hamilton. Similarly, the work of one solitary contemporary printmaker is included: Christopher Le Brun’s Untitled (2005), a monotype created to accompany the Fifty Etchings portfolio, the artist’s second major collaboration with Paragon Press and a recent gift from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Indeed, if there is a discernible thread uniting this display, aside from the outstanding riches of the Fitzwilliam’s holdings, it is to what extent the collections have been shaped by successive patrons. Of the prints on display all but six are bequests or gifts. This is also how the collection began, with Lord Fitzwilliam’s founding 1816 bequest to the University of Cambridge, which was transferred to the new museum in 1848. A century of acquisitions later, an editorial in The Burlington observed, “it would be difficult to think of a single Museum in Great Britain which has benefited to the same extent from private patronage, ever since its foundation and more especially in recent years”.8 The museum wryly acknowledges its debt to a former director whose “appearances” at collectors’ deathbeds resulted in numerous important gifts.9 As any museum or gallery will bear witness, such generosity often brings its own disadvantages. An institution that depends heavily on donations and bequests to augment its collections is not in a position to do just as it pleases and often treads a difficult line between the desire to maintain a living collection and the need to exercise a selective and discerning eye. Fortunately for the Fitzwilliam, its benefactors have consistently shown the most excellent taste and the visitor who perceives any lacunae in the parade of works on display can take comfort in the knowledge that the museum plans to make these highlight displays an annual fixture complementing its regular programme of prints displays with a continual rotation of objects. If future displays are anything like the first they will be a welcome addition to the print enthusiast’s calendar. This small but well-conceived and accessible display, containing both canonical works and curiosities, will delight an informed audience and convert the most reluctant to this notoriously specialist medium.

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  1. Anonymous, Original. “St. Monday, A Journey Through Burning Streets To The British Museum, &c.” in “The Literary Chronicle and Weekly Review,” Saturday, 25 June 1825, compiled in “The Literary Chronicle” for the year 1825, London: Davidson, 2 Surrey Street, Strand, p. 414-415. []
  2. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Rembrandt: Experimental Etcher, Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1969, p. 9. []
  3. Walter L. Strauss (ed.), Hendrik Goltzius 1558-1617: The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, New York: Abaris Books, 1977, Vol. 2, p. 442. []
  4. Susan Lambert, Prints: Art and Techniques, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 2001, p. 49. []
  5. Eugenia Parry Janis, “The Role of the Monotype in the Working Method of Degas – I,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 109, No. 766 (Jan., 1967), pp. 20-27, 29. []
  6. Victor I Carlson, “Jean-Louis Desprez’”in Carlson and Ittmann (eds.), Regency to Empire: French Printmaking 1715-1814, Baltimore: The Baltimore Museum of Art and The Minneapois Institute of Arts, c. 1984, p. 237. []
  7. On the 2nd of May 2012 at Sotheby’s, New York, one of Edvard Munch’s versions of The Scream sold for $119,922,500 / £73,921,284 / €91,033,826. []
  8. “The Fitzwilliam Museum,” The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 90, No. 540 (Mar., 1948), pp. 63-64. []
  9. “The Collection of prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum,” http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/dept/pdp/prints/history.html, accessed 21/05/2012. []