The Print Before Photography: An Introduction to European Printmaking 1550–1820
Antony Griffiths, British Museum Press
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Antony Griffiths, who was Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum for 20 years from 1991 to 2011, has done something wholly admirable. After retiring and alongside delivering the Slade Lectures in Oxford, he sat down and has written an absolutely definitive book about the history of printmaking in Western Europe from its beginnings to the time that it began to be overtaken by other technologies, including lithography and photography.
The book is not intended to be read from cover to cover – it is on a massive scale – but it is written in such a way that it can be read for pure pleasure, without recourse to academic or specialist jargon; and in such a way that one knows from the beginning that every sentence is deeply informed by scholarly expertise, the result of years of handling prints, thinking about how they were made, how they were used by artists, where they were sold, and how they were looked at by different publics.
If an argument is needed as to how scholarship is developed by the handling of material within museums, and by a combination of deep knowledge of the secondary literature and a tactile sense of the look and feel of material, then this is it. Not since William Ivins Jr., the curator of the Department of Prints at the Metropolitan Museum from 1916 to 1946, published Prints and Visual Communication (1953) has a museum scholar so transformed the understanding of a field. There is a certain irony, too, that this is the last book to be published by the British Museum Press, handsomely and immaculately produced: a monument to a style of scholarship, which will be hard to improve.
Charles Saumarez Smith