Exhibition | Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on August 18, 2014

Opening next month at The Fitzwilliam:

Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking in Late Georgian England
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 23 September 2014 — 4 January 2015

Curated by David Alexander

Caroline Watson (c.1760-1814), The Death of Cardinal Beaufort, stipple and etching after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1792.

Caroline Watson, The Death of Cardinal Beaufort, stipple and etching after Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1792.

Caroline Watson (1760/61–1814) can be seen as the first British woman professional engraver. Many women in Britain had made prints before her day, but she was the first to make an extended career as an independent engraver. Nearly all those who had earlier made prints were either amateurs, making prints for amusement, or members of printmakers’ families, playing their part in family enterprises. The interest of her career is increased because she was working at a time when women were becoming more important as print buyers; some of her output reflected this change and the accompanying popularity of prints catering to feminine taste. She received support from other women, including recognition from Queen Charlotte, who appointed her ‘Engraver to the Queen’ in 1785, after she had been working for only five years. Later she was encouraged by the wealthy Bute family, particularly by the 4th Earl’s second wife, whose guest she was on several occasions at Luton Park, where Lord Bute, had one of the finest picture collections in England.

At the same time as finding support from other women Caroline Watson was encouraged by several influential men who saw advantage in using her skills; at the start of her career there were the painters Robert Edge Pine, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Ozias Humphry, as well as the printseller John Boydell, all of whom must have known her father; at the end of her career there was William Hayley, a poet and man of letters who befriended many artists. He both admired her as an ailing woman working on her own, and saw her as a reliable and talented collaborator. Having previously employed William Blake to engrave book illustrations he instead employed Caroline Watson on his Life of Romney, 1809. She did not owe her success to patronage, but to her great skill and dedication as an engraver; however the accidents of patronage were an important element in any artist’s career, especially for a woman who was of a retiring nature and not particularly robust in health.

The 200th anniversary of Watson’s death and the fact that the Fitzwilliam and the Folger Library own a number of unpublished letters by her to Hayley, which throw much light on her situation and way of life, provide a suitable opportunity not just to look at her career but to examine printmaking by women in the Britain of her time.

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Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking in Late Georgian England
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 24 September 2014

David Alexander, Honorary Keeper of British Prints and curator of the exhibition, will give a lunchtime talk at 1:15 on Wednesday, 24 September in the Seminar Room. Free admission is by token, 1 per person, available at the Courtyard Entrance desk from 12.45 on the day of the talk.

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Note (added 28 September 2014) — The catalogue is available from the Fitzwilliam:

David Alexander, Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking in Late Georgian England (Cambridge: Fitzwilliam Museum, 2014), 126 pages, ISBN 978-0957443464, £15.

WatsonPBCaroline Watson, who died in 1814, can be seen as the first professional woman engraver, in the sense that she worked independently rather than as a member of a family of engravers. Over a career of thirty years she engraved more than a hundred very delicate prints in the stipple, or dotted manner, which was particularly suited for reproducing miniature portraits. The catalogue, which contains a chronological list of her prints, puts her in the context of the female printmaking of her time, and shows how exceptional was her achievement in working in a male dominated profession. The catalogue carries a transcription of sixteen letters written to her last major employer, William Hayley, which throw much light on the working methods of engravers in general.

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