The arrival of the computer age has affected almost every human activity. It is perhaps a measure of the truth of this statement that word processing and databases have revolutionised even the work of the museum curator. In the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, almost all the drawings are now catalogued on a database, often in great detail, with scanned images, and viewable online. The ‘Advanced Search’ page on the Museum’s website enables researchers to view the drawings not only according to their current attributions but it can also isolate previous owners, dates, schools, subjects and also allows these to be combined with free text searches, for example searching for drawings in red chalk. Soon this will become a commonplace facility but at present it is as sophisticated as any database of its kind available online, as well as being one of the largest.
In combination, these searches have a previously unimaginable power – in theory the user can ask the computer to show only drawings that were once but no longer considered to be by Rembrandt, which were owned in the 18th century by Sir Joshua Reynolds and depict landscapes. The results can then be sorted according to the drawings’ dates of production or by the year of their acquisition by the British Museum. Such flexible indexing is far superior to that of a printed book.
It has therefore been decided that this catalogue will be published only online, the first in the series of volumes devoted to the British Museum’s collection of drawings not to emerge in book form. Traditionalists may regret losing the opportunity to spend several hundred pounds on a bound catalogue, but the author is convinced that in the case of permanent museum catalogues of this kind the advantages far outweigh any disadvantages (albeit noting that this would not be the case for many other kinds of art-historical publications, such as monographs, catalogues raisonnés and exhibition catalogues).
Work on compiling a new catalogue of the collection of Drawings by Rembrandt and his School in the British Museum began in earnest during the late 1980s, the intention being to replace the volume of this title published by Arthur M. Hind in 1915.1 The word ‘school’ has sometimes been misinterpreted abroad as referring only to Rembrandt’s own studio assistants and pupils, but here it is used in its widest possible sense.2 This allows, for example, for the inclusion of Anthonie van Borssom, Willem de Poorter and Pieter de With, artists who by convention have been associated with the Rembrandt school despite the fact that their links with Rembrandt are extremely tenuous. In style, however, their works at least sometimes reflect aspects of Rembrandt’s style or iconography, and that is sufficient qualification. Perhaps more problematic is the inclusion of Rembrandt’s contemporary, Jan Lievens, who probably influenced Rembrandt’s earliest style; but once again, a joint discussion of their work seems desirable in view of their shared artistic concerns at the outset of their careers. Contextual reasons also justify the inclusion of Lievens’s son, Jan Andrea Lievens, whose drawings can only be examined in terms of his father’s style.
In 1992 the compiler published an exhibition catalogue with detailed descriptions of 108 of the 384 drawings discussed here.3 This volume was ‘work in progress’ on the present catalogue and accompanied an exhibition of some 220 of the drawings covered in this online publication. The exhibition was timed to coincide with the arrival in London of a travelling exhibition about Rembrandt that had previously been shown in Berlin and Amsterdam.4
I am grateful to those who assisted and commented on that exploratory exhibition and catalogue and reiterate the acknowledgments given in the Preface to the 1992 volume.5 Many changes have been made in the intervening 17 years and in particular I also have to thank Kirsti Blom, who for the past two years has been a special assistant on the project, checking large quantities of the recent Rembrandt literature and transferring the final catalogue texts to the computer.6
The 1992 catalogue was introduced by a text that is repeated here with minor modifications. It is divided into three sections: