Exhibition | An Amateur’s Passion: Lord Fitzwilliam’s Print Collection

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on August 14, 2016


Now on view at The Fitzwilliam:

An Amateur’s Passion: Lord Fitzwilliam’s Print Collection
The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, 9 August 2016 — 29 January 2017

Curated by Elenor Ling

To mark the bicentenary of the founding of The Fitzwilliam Museum and celebrate its collection, this exhibition looks at one of the passions of its founder, Richard 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745–1816). Lord Fitzwilliam embodies both our present idea of the amateur print collector, as a non-professional enthusiast, and in the way the word amateur was understood in his day—a ‘lover of the arts’. The 198 albums that were housed in his library at the time of his death and transferred to the University of Cambridge under the terms of his bequest are testament to his love of prints. Despite his other all-consuming passions—the plight of the French monarchy in exile and the activities for the Concerts of Ancient Music—he managed to find time to boast of his collection to the exiled French court and to the Earl of Sandwich. The fact that some 40,000 prints are contained within the 198 albums gives a sense of the time and effort he expended on his collection. This small exhibition, comprising thirty-one prints and seven albums, gives a sense of the content and scope of Fitzwilliam’s print collection.

The first significant fact about Fitzwilliam’s albums is that they are arranged according to printmaker—that is to the person who made the print, rather than the artist who designed it or the work in another medium it represents. The names on the spines of the albums, therefore, usually correspond to the work of the person, or a family of engravers, regardless of whether a print was designed by the printmaker or someone else. The display begins with a small selection of Fitzwilliam’s Rembrandt prints, known at the time of his death as one of the strengths of his collection and evidently one of his earliest preoccupations. Following Rembrandt is a mixture of old masters, including Ishrael van Meckenem (c.1445–1503) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), as well as work by contemporary artists, such as Jean-Jacques de Boissieu (1736–1810) and Johann Christian Reinhart (1761–1847).

Fitzwilliam’s albums fall into two main categories: those he acquired complete from other sources and those containing mounted, individual prints arranged entirely by Fitzwilliam himself. The latter is the focus of this exhibition, although the first category is represented. In terms of construction, evidence suggests that Fitzwilliam assembled the work of each printmaker in turn. In general Fitzwilliam tried to acquire prints in good condition and of good quality, and paid great attention to the decorative effect of the finished sheets. Neatness, symmetry and elegance are characteristic qualities across all his albums. Large prints were usually folded, rather than cut and pasted on separate sheets (in contrast to some albums acquired from other collections).

The examples of prints from his monographic albums serve to highlight the anomalies in his collection: the outsized albums that housed his mezzotints (the chief strength of his collection of British prints) and two albums arranged by subject, ‘Imitations of Drawings’, which comprises a mixture of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Italian woodcuts and eighteenth-century prints produced as facsimiles of drawings. Most bizarrely of all is the strange large album called simply ‘Jesuites’, a testament to another of his admirations: St Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit Order.

The exhibition presents what little can be gleaned about Fitzwilliam’s method of acquisition, including the single-surviving draft letter, written by Fitzwilliam just after the turn of the nineteenth century to someone who was to buy prints for him in Paris, and the names of print sellers and publishers written by Fitzwilliam as notes in a small number of the albums. The lack of documentation concerning the acquisition of prints highlights how importance it is that the majority of his albums has survived intact to this day.


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