Prints and Drawings (Room 90), Upper floor

Exhibitions of prints and drawings are changed several times a year because long exposure to light causes works on paper to fade and discolour.

Changing displays

Light, time, legacy: Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome

21 January – 14 August 2016

2016 is the bicentenary of Francis Towne's death and his historic bequest to the British Museum of 75 uniquely beautiful watercolours made on his visit to Italy in 1780-1. To celebrate this generous gift the watercolours are all on display here, centred on 52 drawings of Rome that have not been shown together since 1805, including views of great monuments such as the Colosseum, Forum and the Palatine.

As a painter working in Exeter, away from the influential networks of the capital, Towne struggled to win the recognition of the London art establishment. Following repeated rebuffs from the Royal Academy, he decided to mount a retrospective exhibition to attract attention to his work in another way. The Italian views occupied pride of place in this exhibition and a century after their bequest to the British Museum, they caught the attention of early 20th century Modernist artists and scholars, who admired the drawings for their masterly clarity and abstraction. Following a well-deserved reassessment, Towne is now considered to be one of the greatest and most innovative of British watercolour artists.

More about this exhibition 

Detail, Francis Towne (1739–1816), The Temple of Vesta. Pen and black ink and watercolour with grey wash, 1781.


Early drawings by Frank Auerbach
Presented to the British Museum through the Acceptance in Lieu Scheme

Late April - 14 July 2016

This display showcases twelve drawings by Frank Auerbach that were allocated to the British Museum through H.M. Government’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme (AIL) in 2015.  They were part of a group of paintings and drawings, all by Auerbach, from the estate of his great friend and fellow artist Lucian Freud who died in 2011.  The forty works from Freud’s estate were allocated to various museum and galleries  throughout the UK, but the British Museum received the largest allocation of twelve works.

The majority of the drawings  from the gift date from the 1950s when Auerbach was a student at St Martin’s School of Art and later, at the Royal College of Art. Freud was a great admirer of these early drawings, many of which Auerbach personally presented to his friend.

These important works greatly augment the British Museum’s holdings of Auerbach’s work.  Now visitors to the Museum will be able to trace all the important stages in this distinguished artist’s career, from his beginnings as an emerging impressive talent to the powerful self-portrait which Auerbach presented to the Museum in 2010.

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), Head of E.O.W., 1956, charcoal and chalk on paper. 2015,7013.1 © Frank Auerbach (courtesy Marlborough Fine Art)


Drawn to Sicily: Early British exploration of the Classical world

Late April - 14 July 2016

In the 18th century, Sicily was a Grand Tour destination only for the intrepid few, an optional extension to the more conventional tour that focused on Rome, Florence, Venice and Naples. Travel on the rural, rugged island was challenging and many parts were inaccessible. Furthermore, the countryside could be dangerous, as groups of bandits preyed on travellers. Yet those with a specific interest in ancient art and architecture went to admire and study first-hand the remains of the majestic Greek temples.

The presence of European diplomats at the court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples made access to, and travel in, Sicily somewhat easier. Diplomats could provide travel passes - such as one which was issued to Charles Townley (1737-1805) and displayed in this show - as well as letters of introduction to the cultured élite in the main cities: Palermo, Catania and Syracuse. A travel pass could ensure lodging when presented, as English visitors were well-respected.

This display illustrates four expeditions undertaken by some of Britain's best-known Grand Tourists and renowned architects.










Charles Gore (1729-1807), View of the Temple of Concord at Agrigento, 1777, watercolour over graphite, with some pen and ink. Oo,4.26


Permanent displays

Two works from the department are normally on display in the Museum:

Grayson Perry, 'Map of an Englishman' (detail) 
Michelangelo, Epifania


Other prints and drawings can be seen in the Study Room.