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Marks and Meanings: Revealing the Hand of the Collector and “the Moment of Making” in two 18th-Century Print Albums

In 1922, the English writer George Somes Layard commented that: “A series of marks on a print is its diary: the fate and journey of many a masterpiece can be thereby traced until it finds at last its permanent home in the Museum.” Layard succinctly foreshadowed what might now be described as the materiality, agency, and lives of these art works: their materials and production; and the markings, annotations, and signs of use that connect the human stories of artist, printmaker, print publisher, dealer, collector, and collecting institution. The potency of these narratives is magnified when prints are considered not only as individual objects, but also within, and in concert with, extant print albums.

Before the second half of the eighteenth century, collectors most commonly stored and displayed their prints in albums: book-like volumes often housed as part of a library. Since then, changing institutional display and storage preferences have resulted in the now customary presentation of prints in individual sunk or recessed mounts, rather than bound en masse. As a result, intact albums of prints (especially those preserved in the arrangements determined by eighteenth-century collectors) are rare survivors.

Much important data about the assembly of print collections in the eighteenth century—once evident in the physical characteristics of intact albums—is now diminished or lost. These physical characteristics are the primary focus of this investigation. Adhesions, foliation, annotations, bindings, and signs of use (which are often overlooked by viewers or consciously excised from eighteenth-century print albums in institutional collections) can be as intriguing as the prints contained within the albums. These material features are also marks of identity and agency: they reveal the “lives” of the albums and the hand of the collector.

Relevant research areas: Western Europe, 18th Century, Etching