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 - 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)


Recent French Acquisitions

19 July - November 2016

In 2015 the British Museum was fortunate enough to acquire two important 17th-century French drawings. Nicolas Poussin’s Death of the Virgin is a very early drawing by the artist, dating from just before his journey to Rome, which affords an understanding of a less familiar period of his career. The St Mary Magdalene is the first work to enter the collection by Poussin’s fellow artist and rival Simon Vouet, whose Italianate style formed the basis of the French Baroque.

The drawings are displayed alongside some of the Museum’s finest recent French acquisitions, ranging from rare 17th-century satirical French prints to a silhouette of the violinist Niccolò Paganini and a series of exquisite medal designs, made for Napoleon by the artist Louis Lafitte.


Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), The Death of the Virgin, 1623, red chalk, pen and brown ink and watercolour, squared in both black and white chalk. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and   allocated to the  British Museum 2015. 2015,7017.1


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.