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Collecting Prints and Drawings: Thematic Virtual Issue “Journal of the History of Collections”

The Journal of the History of Collections has launched a Thematic Virtual Issue on the topic of Collecting Prints and Drawings. The collection compiles articles from past issues of the journal and is a useful resource for those with research interests in the history of works on paper and the people who collected them.


In 1565, Samuel Quiccheberg included prints and drawings among the contents of his imaginary 'theatre' of 'artificial and marvellous things'.1 For Quiccheberg, the sheer variety of works on paper was the appeal of this type of material, which could encompass everything from watercolours, intaglio and relief prints of all manner of subjects, to maps and genealogical tables. It is prints and drawings, and their allure for collectors, which forms this second virtual issue drawn from the archives of the Journal of the History of Collections.

Just as Quiccheberg celebrated prints and drawings for their variety, so this collection of papers celebrates the diversity of their acquirers: the many dedicated collectors who formed important, intriguing and very personal groups of works. Among these are the early collections of Gabriele Vendramin, who used a fortune founded on soap-production to acquire the drawings of the leading artists of his day; of the Swiss doctor Felix Platter, who preserved the collection of his mentor Conrad Gessner, among them many of the preparatory drawings for Gessner's renowned publication the Historiae Animalium (1551); and of Cardinal Alessandro Orsini, who amassed not only prints, but also the copper plates from which they were made.

For the last few years of Orsini's life, his colleague at the papal court was Cardinal Francesco Barberini, whose secretary, Cassiano dal Pozzo, amassed a vast and important collection of works on paper. For dal Pozzo, drawings and prints formed a 'Paper Museum', through which he sought to accumulate the riches of the natural and man-made worlds. Although dal Pozzo's zeal was notable, by the seventeenth century, collections of drawings and prints were increasingly common. In Leipzig later in the century, the architect Gottfried Wagner would amass 10,202 sheets which became one of the key holdings of the Dresden print room after his death. In the eighteenth century, like dal Pozzo, the artist Jan van Rymsdyk had aspirations to form his own small 'Museum', of artists' drawings.

Prints and drawings were not just stored in albums and portfolios: they could be framed alongside paintings and displayed on walls, or pasted into texts to provide illustration. In eighteenth-century Britain, concurrent fashions for portrait collecting and extra-illustrating texts saw market become'madness', with new prints issued to meet demand and increasing rarities fetching enormous prices. One enterprising cleric, the Revd John Brand, found an inventive way to participate in the latest craze without bankruptcy: he borrowed and carefully drew copies of the prints he coveted to form a unique and at the same time fashionable collection.

Beyond the individualities of collectors themselves, the study of the market for prints and drawings can illuminate our understanding of the polite world and its mores, of the complexities of connoisseurship, and of the production (and preservation) of satire as a barometer of a society. If this collection begins, chronologically, with Gabriele Vendramin and his exquisite sheets of fine art, so it ends with Erwin Swann, who sought to preserve the graphic art of satire in a collection of prints and drawings no less fascinating than those formed by his illustrious forebears.

Footnote 1: Mark A. Meadow and Bruce Robertson (eds and trans), The First Treatise on Museums. Samuel Quiccheberg's 'Inscriptiones', 1565 (Los Angeles, 2013).