In landmarks in Print Collecting at the British Museum, one work stands out with stark simplicity. It shows a reclining stag, with flame-like antlers, tethered by a chain to a tree. The low horizon and empty sky create a bare background against which the slender tree, centrally placed, rises straight up and then bursts into a small top-knot of foliage. Dated c.1515, it was engraved by Giulio Campagnola, who worked in Mantua, Ferrara and Venice and enjoyed renown not only as an artist but also as a scholar and musician. He apparently invented the stipple shading that gives this delicate work such gravitas. It is haunting and concise, like a Petrarch sonnet, and justly described in the catalogue as "beautiful and engimatic". It is also extremely rare: only four impressions are known to exist.
This gem-like print is one of many treasures in the British Museum's Prints and Drawings collection, which this exhibition celebrates. The collection has accumulated steadily since the founding of the museum in 1753, and today is one of the greatest repositories of prints in the world. Its growth owes much to diligence and luck, private generosity, state support and curatorial skills. It is also shaped and coloured by shifts in taste. By focusing on the collectors, dealers and curators who played a vital role, this exhibition offers the visitor insight into the dynamics that helped to create a great public collection.
It begins with the sharp delineation of shells, flowers, insects, a rat, and a chick inside its shell. These decorative arrangements of flora and fauna were popular in the 17th century and greatly appealed to Sir Hans Sloane, the author of a natural history of Jamaica. Sloane used his inherited wealth, together with the fortune he gained from his medical practice, to acquire the greatest library in England. His collecting instincts extended to gems, cameos, antiquities, mathematical instruments, minerals, birds, fishes and fossils, which he left to the nation so that they could be "visited and seen by all persons". The British Museum, in its early days, was simply his collection and was housed in a large town house on the outskirts of London.
Sloane's numerous albums of drawings and volumes of prints were initially placed within the departments of Manuscripts and Books respectively. This changed after the museum received its second major bequest, from the Rev Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode in 1799. Having taken holy orders, Cracherode never practised as a clergyman, but became a tireless collector. Unlike Sloane, who was very much a public figure, Cracherode was extremely retiring: he allowed no portrait to be made of himself and directed in his will that all his personal papers should be destroyed after his death.
So huge was his collection of prints and drawings that the British Musuem set aside an entire room to house it. Cracherode had owned, among other things, the finest group of Rembrandt etchings in England, including five impressions of Rembrandt's Three Crosses, two of which are shown here. The huge differences between them suggest that Rembrandt set aside the 1653 print, reworking and darkening it some years later.
Another Rembrandt, The Coach Landscape, proved the downfall of caricaturist Robert Dighton, who had been quietly stealing Cracherode's prints from the museum. The trustees agreed not to prosecute if Dighton helped with their recovery, but as his memory was poor and Cracherode's prints - numbering somewhere between five and ten thousand - had never been listed, it was impossible to know how much had gone missing.
This unfortunate episode led to the creation of a separate section for prints and drawings. Initially a sub-section of Antiquities, it became a department in its own right in 1837 under the keepership of Henry Josi, who introduced a method of cataloguing that is still in operation today. Josi had very good relations with William Smith of Lisle Street, the public-spirited dealer who negotiated the sale to the museum of John Sheepshanks' collection of Dutch and Flemish etchings and drawings at less than half the price that Sheepshanks had paid for it. For £5,000 the museum acquired 7,666 prints and 812 drawings in 1836. It was the first substantial prints and drawings purchase made by the museum, and the first to attract a special grant.
There was a "philatelic" aspect such collecting: the object was to complete a series. Sheepshanks's "shopping-list" was Bartsch's 21-volume print catalogue, Le Peintre-Graveur, drawn up from some of the most prestigious collections in Europe, and published between 1803 and 1821. Other motivations included patriotic pride and a belief in the potential usefulness of prints to artists and designers. Felix Slade, another great print benefactor, was firmly committed to raising standards in art education, and endowed three Slade professorships that exist to this day.
Everywhere one turns in this exhibition, there are breathtaking images: Martin Shongauer's tumultuous but precise rendering of Christ's journey to Calvary, for instance, or DÃ¼rer's Nemesis, turning the ball of fortune with her feet as she floats over a bird's-eye view of the South Tyrol. Both are from the collection of Renaissance prints and drawings given by John Malcom of Poltalloch; at much the same time, his friend William Mitchell donated an impressive collection of early German woodcuts. Both men belonged, with another great print collector, George Salting, to the Burlington Fine Arts Club, which became a powerful academy for connoisseurship.
There is, however, a huge disparity between the wealth of information on these collectors in the catalogue and the token display of works by which their private passions are represented. The arguments that enrich the catalogue do not translate easily into visual terms, and the exhibition lacks imaginative presentation. Which is perhaps as well, for the coolness and calm of the print gallery remain undisturbed, and visitors, leaning on the wooden ledge in front of the display cases, easily lose themselves in contemplation of the work.
This, of course, is what the keeper Campbell Dodgson would have wished. So persistent were his studious habits that at the end of his life he became unable to wear stiff collars. Sir John Pope-Hennessy recalls that he looked "like an old tortoise", adding, "but then all the staff in the Print Room were rather pachydermitous in those days!" Dodgson is celebrated not just as a leading authority on early German and Flemish prints, but also because he built up his own collection of contemporary prints at a time when museum policy precluded the use of public funds for the acquisition of material by living artists. He left it to the museum. Hence the Edward Hoppers, the Emil Nolde and the monumental Kathe Kollwitz of a female nude seen from behind.
The story continues with curatorial collecting in the 20th century and ends with some recent acquisitions. In total there are just over 100 works - enough, perhaps, for most exhibition-goers.
'Landmarks in Print Collecting', British Museum, until 28 Nov