- Museum number
- Object: The little executioner
Head of a bearded male figure, in profile to right, wearing a turban; after a painting by (an imitator of) José de Ribera. 1662
Mezzotint with traces of burin
- Production date
Height: 131 millimetres
Width: 164 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- (Text from Antony Griffiths: ' The Print in Stuart Britain 1603-1689', BM 1998, cat 142.)
Rupert was the third son of Frederick of Bohemia and Elizabeth, the 'Winter Queen' and sister to Charles I. As an exile in the Netherlands, he was trained, like many children of the nobility at this time, in etching. Hollstein gives a catalogue of eleven that he made, two of which are dated 1636-7. He became famous as the Royalist cavalry commander in the Civil War, but defeat forced him back to the Netherlands, until he returned at the Restoration.
In Brussels in 1654 he must have met Ludwig von Siegen, who had invented the art of mezzotint in 1642, and learnt from him the secret which Siegen himself had not exploited. Rupert's first dated mezzotints in 1658 are of such a high quality that they have long been supposed to have a considerable input from the artist Wallerant Vaillant whom he had met in Frankfurt that year and taken on as collaborator.
Rupert was a great experimenter, and was an early member of the Royal Society. He made a number of inventions, introduced 'Rupert's drops' into Britain, and devised the rocker as a superior method of laying mezzotint grounds. When he returned to London in 1660, where mezzotint was still unknown, he demonstrated the process to like-minded associates. Among them was John Evelyn, who was engaged on completing his book on the history of printmaking, Sculptura. Evelyn included a deliberately enigmatical account of the process in chapter six of his book, not wishing it 'to be prostituted at so cheap a rate as the more naked describing of it here would too soon have expos'd it to'. He added that he was willing, 'by his Highnesse's permission, to gratify any curious and worthy person with as full and perfect a demonstration of the entire art' as he could. But this permission did not extend to any printmaker who might exploit the process.
Evelyn persuaded Rupert to contribute this print to include in his book, which is thereby the first mezzotint published in England. Evelyn's diary and papers reveal that Rupert demonstrated the process to him on 24 February 1661, and again on 13 March. A letter of 6 May from Sir Robert Moray makes arrangements for printing the plate in Evelyn's presence the following day; it would allow 100 impressions without retouching as long as it was printed by Rupert's own man (see Print Quarterly, XII 1995, pp.289-90).
The head is a reduced version of the head in Rupert's masterpiece, the huge 'Great Executioner' of 1658, made after a painting then thought to be by Ribera. It was doubtless suggested as a suitable subject by Evelyn, but it was in fact too wide for the book, with the result that the plate had to be folded in. It is one of only two (out of a total of fifteen) mezzotints that Rupert made after his return to England. The further development of the process lay in the hands of others.
See also Chaloner Smith, p. 1053-4.
- Not on display
- Associated titles
Associated Title: Sculptura or the history and art of chalcography..., to Which is annexed a new manner of engraving, or Mezzo Tinto, communicated by his Hyghness Prince Rupert to the Author..., London, 1662
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number