This beautifully produced book is packed with information that will be of great interest and utility to anyone involved with old prints and drawings. Far from being a narrowly prescriptive manual, the guide provides a broad conceptual framework for understanding works of art as we find them today before moving on to address issues involving their future care and alteration.
James’s circumspection is apparent from the outset. His first chapter provides a historical overview of collections and the methods that were used to mount and preserve drawings. His detailed descriptions of mounts become a valuable supplement to Frits Lugt’s indispensableMarques de Collections – especially given the inclusion of many curious anecdotes. The information is arranged geographically and chronologically to reveal trends in both taste and the long-term migration of objects away from their places of origin. James shows how a given drawing may have been subjected to successive alterations at the hands of collectors. He demonstrates how even patterns of glue stains should be regarded first as historical evidence and only later as aesthetic defects.
Marie Christine Enshaian provides a short history of paper as well as an introduction to its evolving physical structure and content. Her section on the dating of papers focuses on watermarks and their transcription. Beyond the standard recording techniques that she describes (tracing, beta-radiography, and x-radiography), one can expect to see new developments. My colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts, John Woolf and Roy Perkinson, have had promising results with the use of digital imaging processing equipment. Their techniques are accurate, relatively quick, and seem not to involve serious health risks.
Caroline Corrigan’s chapter on drawing techniques clearly outlines all the major classes of materials used by draftsmen to make their marks. She emphasizes the variability of the preparations of the materials and briefly states the main problems that each medium poses for conservation intervention. This chapter is particularly well illustrated with color reproductions.
James follows with a chapter on print techniques. Here the emphasis is less on materials since the overwhelming majority of old master prints are composed of oil-based ink on paper. Instead, James concentrates on describing the making of printing matrices (blocks, plates, and stones) and their use for applying ink to paper. His is an excellent and concise summary, though one might quibble with a few details. Figure 46 is identified as an etched self-portrait by Lucas van Leyden, but it was probably made in the seventeenth century based on a portrait of Lucas drawn by Albrecht Dürer. Figure 53 is a Daniel Hopfer etching shown as an example of lavis, the brushed application of dilute acid to corrode the printing plate. James states that this technique was too delicate to withstand the repeated wiping necessary for large editions; yet, the example that he shows comes from an edition published by David Funck long after Hopfer made the plate. Though no one knows how many impressions were taken from the plate, the lavis effect clearly outlasted the artist and went on to survive a later commercial edition. In his discussion of wallpaper, James suggests that repeating patterns were the invention of the English just before 1600. I would think that the concept of repetitive wall patterning was deeply ingrained in traditions of weavers and tile makers. The earliest printed facsimiles were probably stencil decorations and the Nymph and Satyr woodcuts attributed to Dürer were probably intended to be pasted on walls in a rich and repetitive pattern. As I said, these are small quibbles. James provides a quick and clear guide to the bewildered student.
James’s next chapter is a guide to the visual identification of the drawing and printmaking techniques that he and Corrigan described in the prior chapters. Again, a fine series of illustrations drives home the lessons of this chapter. In some cases both the recto and verso of the sheet are shown in order to demonstrate the degree of penetration of the media. The need to examine works of art under varying conditions and using optical aids is reinforced by the illustrations made under magnification, raking light, and infrared light. In the section on drawings, James gives pointers on how to detect retouching in drawings. Unfortunately, he does not do the same for prints, for old prints have often been retouched with ink, gray wash, or black crayon. Still, his descriptions of printmaking techniques that were invented after what is normally considered the ‘old master’ era may well help his readers to recognize facsimiles of earlier prints and drawings.
Turning to the preservation of prints and drawings, James again begins with a substantial historical overview. Whereas the first chapter dealt with individual sheets, here he concen trates more on albums, portfolios, and entire collections. He describes the history of a number of extant albums, valuable information, since these were once common but are now scarce. The scarcity of old albums has a direct relationship on the damage done to prints and drawings over the years, for dismounting cleaning and remounting have often taken a toll. James traces this activity to economic and intellectual changes that have prompted the dispersal and rearrangement of collections. Framed drawings occur frequently in old inventories and were especially prized. What portion of the value was due to the quality of the drawing and what to the frame is difficult to say, all the more so because many such drawings were destroyed by over-exposure.
The second half of the book turns to issues of physical care and treatment. Though these chapters are aimed more directly at curators, private owners, and conservators, more historically minded readers will benefit from the caution of the authors. They are so careful to point out the hazards of ill-considered conservation treatments that one becomes ever more aware that the works of art that we see today may not look much like they did when they were made. A cleaning may bring back the whiteness of the paper, but it may also send the delicate passages of the drawing right down the drain. Even if the descriptions of chemical processes are foreign to the historian, it is quite valuable to be able to understand the factors that enter into decisions about the future care of the objects that we study.
Though this fine work has been available for several years in Italian, we owe Jerry Cohn a debt of thanks for making it more readily available to the English-speaking audience.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston