The recorded history of the royal collection of Old Master Drawings explains to a large extent the contents of the Dutch part of this collection.
When George II gave to the nation his rich and varied collection of books, which now forms the nucleus of the library of the British Museum, he retained the old drawings which had been acquired by himself, and his forebears. On his accession to the throne, George III, with the help of his librarian, Richard Dalton, immediately set about enlarging the collection. Many entire collections of paintings and drawings were bought in Italy, amongst them that of Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, for which, in 1762, the King paid the huge sum of £20,000 pounds. George IV, while still Prince of Wales, made many additions, chiefly of works by Dutch artists. I was fortunate enough to find in the Royal Archives the bills for some of his purchases.
The bulk of the drawings would appear to have been acquired during the eighteenth century, and the taste of the period is reflected in the choice of the Dutch drawings. While the quality of some of these will ensure them a place amongst the works of art of all time, the greater number in this collection are of such a character as appealed particularly to the spirit of the eighteenth century. It was a time of quiet contemplation and enjoyment of life; men were learned without being pedantic, sensitive without sentimentality, and admirers of perfection in craftsmanship.
The greater number of the drawings in this collection are carefully executed works, mostly made for their own sake. This explains the absence of any of the 1250, more or less, drawings which Mr. Frits Lugt considers as definitely the work of Rembrandt. To most of the connoisseurs of the eighteenth century, whose demand was for a finished product, his notes and sketches, albeit the work of genius, appeared meaningless scribbles.
We, on the other hand, like the scribbles. We enjoy the studies from nature, and the exercises through which the artist tries to grasp the form in which to express the information he has acquired by observation, the creations of his imagination and the feelings of his heart. This shorthand writing enables us to follow the growth of an idea and the development of the artist's capacity.
Most of the old collectors looked at the matter from a different angle. Their interest was in complete drawings. As early as the seventeenth century many Dutch artists did their best to meet this demand by producing finished drawings for the albums of amateurs. One of the first to adopt this practice was Hendrik Avercamp, the 'dumb artist of Kampen', who finished off his drawings by colouring them in light and attractive tones. His later popularity in England is shown by the fact that the royal collection is richer than any other in examples of his work.
The taste of the eighteenth century is also exhibited here in the great number of landscapes by Dutch artists who followed the conception of the 'heroic' landscapes of the classical artists. The lesser men among them often fell into a spiritless repetition of themselves or of their models, especially at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The connoisseurs who formed the royal collection were, however, lucky in their choice of drawings of this school, for it possesses a large number of excellent works by these artists, amongst them being Herman van Swanevelt, Jan Both . . .