Print Collecting in Provincial England Prior to 1650: The Randle Holme Album

By Tittler, Robert; Thackray, Anne | British Art Journal, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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Print Collecting in Provincial England Prior to 1650: The Randle Holme Album


Tittler, Robert, Thackray, Anne, British Art Journal


The increasing popularity of print-collecting in 17th-century England was a reflection of, and manifested itself in, the expansion of English printmaking and the London print trade over the century. The diversification of print stock and the extension of the trade into the provinces--through the publication of printsellers's catalogues--certainly encouraged print collecting in Restoration England) The two most familiar, and probably most important, English print collections of the century remain the troves of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), (2) and John Evelyn, both working principally from London in the latter half of the century. (3)

These two monumental collections reflect attitudes which had become common among print collectors by the second half of the century: that prints were more than aesthetic additions to the domestic environment. They served as important vehicles for the communication of information, and as such were kept as part of libraries. Their display contributed to the social, cultural, and intellectual legitimation of their owners. Although the aesthetic qualities of prints were increasingly appreciated by such collectors, for many who engaged in collecting, their didactic function continued to dominate. Evelyn recommended the use of prints to teach children, adolescents, and princes, (4) and to communicate scientific discoveries--particularly among gentlemen like himself. He dedicated his book on printing, Sculptura, to the scientist Robert Boyle, explaining that he had written it in response to Boyle's request that he produce a treatise on chalcography:

 
   ... as you are pleased to judge it useful for the encouragement of 
   the gentlemen of our nation, who sometimes please themselves with 
   these innocent diversions ... and especially, that such as are 
   addicted to the more noble mathematical Sciences, may draw and 
   engrave their schemes with delight and assurance. (5) 

Yet the greater incidence of printsellers in London, the greater survival rate of prints kept in library albums, and the familiar London-based examples represented by Pepys and Evelyn in the Restoration era, appear in several ways to have distorted our understanding of print-collecting in 17th-century England. So vivid are those examples in our minds that they overshadow evidence of such activity outside the London metropolis, or amongst those below the ranks of the aristocracy and court circle, or at an earlier time. The generation or so before Pepys and Evelyn began their collections--especially the late Elizabethan and early Stuart years remain something of a dark corner in the history of English print production and collection. This is even more true for the provincial scene than for London, and for the middling rather than the upper ranks of society. Those 'middling sorts of people' attracted to print-collecting in those earlier times had not yet attained the level of material culture which would blossom, despite the intrusion of warfare and political upheaval, in the mid-century and after. (6)

We do know of course that the great collectors of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart eras, including Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; John, Lord Lumley; and both the Earl and Countess of Arundel, collected prints as well as paintings and drawings. We know that several English engravers of prints were at work by 1600, and that the first specialist print publishers, John Sudbury and his nephew George Humble, opened their shop at the sign of the White Horse, Pope's Head Alley near Newgate, in 1603. (7) And, as Antony Wells-Cole has shown, English embroideries, painted cloths for walls, decorative carvings, and even portraits reveal the familiarity of their makers with continental prints. (8) These men must have owned print collections, or had access to them. Yet the collections, and the identity of their collectors (below the very conspicuous ranks of the aristocracy and outside the London metropolis) remain elusive.

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