Antique prints and print rooms

Print Rooms flourished in the second half of the 18th century.

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The BOA Museum holds well over 500 engravings, etchings and lithographs dating from the seventeenth to the early twentieth centuries. The common theme of all the prints is that they depict optical subjects such as spectacle-sellers, eclipse-watchers, peep-shows or scientists such as Franklin, Newton and Fresnel. Many include figures wearing spectacles or using other optic devices. Others ridicule the short-sighted.  

All the Talents

All the Talents
Thomas Rowlandson, 1806
This print constitutes the
frontispiece
to the book 'All the Talents!
A Satirical Poem, in Three
Dialogues', by Polypus

It was always intended to display the BOA collection. Mr J. H. Sutcliffe, Secretary of the BOA from 1895 and founder of the museum, had visions of ‘an optical house beautiful’. As Margaret Mitchell’s History of the BOA, shows, by the mid 1930s, most of the print collection was mounted in heavy wooden frames. 'It was J H Sutcliffe’s wish that the wall of the then Council Chamber should be completely covered with the framed prints of early scientists, historic optical instruments, 'Spy' cartoons of famous personages wearing spectacles, and Gillray cartoons'. (p.175). It is notable that he felt such historic items were fitting for the main business room within the building, rather than a separate museum. At the 21st century College, the new Print Room is also one of the principal meeting rooms.

Sutcliffe’s taste for obscuring the walls was very eighteenth century in tone. The College is fortunate that it now occupies an early eighteenth century terraced house and can display the prints in an appropriate manner. A number of the best prints has been conserved and framed for display in the Print Room, located on the first floor (the ‘piano nobile’) of the College. Some of these frames are antiques in themselves, even to the point of being glazed with antique glass. All the frames have been specially selected or designed to suit the style of the print itself and the room in which it will be displayed.

A Pall Mall Puff

The Hanging Wood,
or A Pall Mall Puff

by G. M. Woodward,
1797

Print Rooms flourished in the England and Ireland in the second half of the eighteenth century. One such room is recorded in Horace Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill, circa. 1750. The prints were not normally framed but pasted directly onto the walls, usually in a very symmetrical pattern and increasingly with borders painted around them to look like frames. The genesis of the Print Room is thus closely linked and coincides with the growing popularity of wallpaper from the 1740s.

What is interesting is that such rooms were typically to be found in the private apartments of country houses and they were not usually the decorative focal point of a building. Aristocratic travelogues of the period prove that house-guests, of equal social standing to the owner, might be granted privileged access to view such a room. It has been common, however, for architectural historians to dismiss the Print Room as a rather strange product of amateur feminine taste in an age of idle leisure.

Een Bijschrift Bij Een Plaatje

Een Bijschrift Bij Een
Plaatje
, by I. M. Baumann
after Lafosse, associated
with a poem of the same
title by J. E. Banck, 1840

(Click on image to enlarge)

Modern scholarship has begun to challenge this view. It has become clear that a Print Room could be part of an overall architectural scheme. The presence on a wall of a print (possibly reproducing a famous painting) with a painted 'frame' can be considered as a type of trompe l’oeil, an architectural ‘conceit’. Whilst many Print Rooms contained ‘feminine’ prints of flowers or Eastern scenes, there were ‘masculine’ examples too such as the surviving room at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire dating from 1805, in which colourful Gillray caricatures have been displayed. This is interesting to us, as the BOA collection includes eighteen Gillray’s, as well as twelve Rowlandson’s and five Hogarth’s. In the Dioptric Review of April 1934, J. H. Sutcliffe wrote that the BOA Museum’s print collection was mainly of the age of Hogarth and that they, 'as may well be imagined, are of the rather gross order, and not always in the best of taste'. There is also a splendid portrait of Mrs. H. Humphrey, Gillray’s publisher, who is wearing spectacles with tinted lenses.

Our modern version of a Print Room thus sits comfortably with its historic predecessors. The main difference is our use of archival quality materials, though these will be imperceptible to the casual visitor. The original BOA wooden frames have had to be discarded as the acid in the mounting materials was damaging the prints. When meetings are not taking place, the room is available for public viewing as part of our full building tours and not just for invited aristocrats.

Note: Full Building Tours are by appointment and a fee is charged of £5 per person, (College Fellows and Members free). More details on the Museum Visiting pages.

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