History of the collection

Introduction

The Department of Prints and Drawings, founded in 1808, is one of the oldest departments in the British Museum. It is home to the national collection of drawings and prints and includes a comprehensive collection of work  by all the great old masters, as well as lesser known works of great historical and social interest.

The original collection was split off from the Library Departments (now housed in the British Library) and was formed from parts of the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, which had come at the foundation of the Museum in 1753, and the bequests of William Fawkener in 1769, and the Rev. C.M. Cracherode in 1799. In 1818 the department acquired the collection of printed ephemera formed by Sarah Banks, the eccentric sister of Sir Joseph Banks.

Development

In the 1820s the curatorial staff began to build on these collections. Over the next forty years generous grants from the Government enabled the purchase of prints on a large scale. Major acquisitions were made of William Smith's collection of early German and Italian engraving, and Edward Hawkins' collection of British satirical prints.

The first catalogues were written in the 1870s, but it was under the Keepership of Sir Sidney Colvin that Campbell Dodgson, Lawrence Binyon, A.M. Hind and A.E. Popham were appointed. Their scholarly publications gave the department the international reputation that it retains to the present day.

Colvin realised that the collection of drawings needed to be built up, and was responsible for the purchase of the Malcolm collection in 1895. This contained over 1,000 old master drawings of the highest quality. In the same period William Mitchell gave his collection of German Renaissance woodcuts, George Salting bequeathed a remarkable group of old master prints and drawings, and Baron Cheylesmore his collection of portrait mezzotint prints.

Since World War II, there have been major additions. In 1946 Count Antoine Seilern donated the main bulk of the Phillipps-Fenwick collection of old master drawings. In 1949 Campbell Dodgson, former Keeper of the Department, bequeathed over 5,000 works, mostly prints from the previous 75 years. In 1968 sixteen outstanding nineteenth-century French drawings were bequeathed by the collector César Mange de Hauke. Since the mid-1970s considerable efforts have been made to acquire good examples of modern drawing and printmaking.

Collection and acquisition

The Museum’s collection of old master drawings and prints is one of the greatest in the world. There are groups of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo (including his only surviving full-scale cartoon), Dürer, Rubens, Rembrandt, Claude and Watteau. Virtually complete collections of the works of all the great printmakers include holdings of prints by Dürer, Rembrandt and Goya.

There are over 30,000 British drawings and watercolours with important examples of work by Hogarth, Sandby, Turner, Girtin, Constable, Cotman, Cox, Gillray, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, as well as all the great Victorians. There are about a million British prints including over 20,000 satires and excellent collections of works by William Blake and Thomas Bewick.

The modern collection is less comprehensive, but includes collections of French lithographs of the post-Impressionist period, German Expressionist, British, American, Australian and Scandinavian prints, Henry Moore's Shelter Sketchbook and prints by Picasso and his contemporaries in twentieth-century Paris.

Underpinning these masterpieces are lesser-known works of great interest: 69 fifteenth-century niello plates (decorative silver plates inlaid with a black compound); a group of 75 watercolours by John White (active 1585-93), which are some of the earliest European views of America; 1,000 botanical collages by the eighteenth-century ‘blue-stocking' Mary Delany; and nearly 1400 watercolours of everyday life in London by the German artist George Scharf who settled in the city after the Battle of Waterloo.

The collection also contains hundreds of thousands of prints reproducing paintings from the sixteenth century up until the era of photography; tens of thousands of engraved portraits; large documentary collections of historical prints and topography (including the Crace collection of around 6,160 views of London) and collections of printed ephemera, such as trade and visiting cards, fans, bookplates, playing cards and toy-theatre prints.

Factsheets

The department has produced a number of factsheets that provide introductions to artists whose work is represented in the collection, as well as particular areas of the collection. 

They can all be downloaded in pdf format:

Artists