Although I am better known today for working with contemporary art, this was not always the case. In the 1970s I worked with antiquarian prints, a part of the art world to which I have recently become reconnected. This marketplace is often overlooked and clearly there are exciting possibilities for collectors who like tracking down and acquiring rare works of art at affordable prices. With Old Master prints you are collecting little pieces of art history.
My particular interest is in landscape etching from 1550 to 1820. Within this period one sees the start of an acceptance of landscape as a subject for art within its own right (as opposed to being just the background setting for religious, mythological and historical narratives) as well as the rise of etching, and printmaking in general. Etching was preferred by many artists as it is a relatively quick way of making prints, and allows more fluidity of line and expression in the drawing. Engravings, in drawing directly into the steel plate with a steel point, tended to be used for reproductive purposes and were more visually severe.
Today we take prints and printmaking for granted, but back in the late 16th century it was a completely different situation.
Please be mindful that we are considering prints that are hundreds of years old and that, despite their age and handling over the years, they are in remarkably good condition. And, when reflecting on the prices of much contemporary prints and works on paper, in my view these prints, made by recognised and significant artists, offer extremely good value.
In studying art history at the University of East Anglia my principal courses were on subjects on the art of the baroque and neo-classicism. I then went on to do an M.Litt research degree at University of Edinburgh on the etchings of an 18th century Scottish artist John Clerk of Eldin.
As a self taught printmaker, John Clerk of Eldin often referred to prints by 17th century artists as a way of learning technique and how to design images. Prints by European artists were readily available in Edinburgh including works by Albrecht Durer, Jacques Callot, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt van Rijn, Wenceslaus Hollar, Hendrik Goltzius, and Nicholaes Berghem. Clerk refers directly to Claude Lorrain, Anthonie Waterloo, Herman van Swanevelt and Reinier Nooms (known as Zeeman).
While doing the picture research for my book The Etchings of John Clerk of Eldin (published 2012) I was surprised to come across the etchings of Waterloo and Swanevelt, with the same images that I had used to illustrate the original thesis. I was further surprised to find that they were affordable. I made the purchase as it would then give me an option to include them in the exhibition I was planning rather than try to borrow prints from a public museum which was likely to be difficult and potentially costly. This one purchase has opened new possibilities for me.
I used to sell antiquarian Scottish prints when I worked in Edinburgh in the 1970s, making buying trips to London. I find now that the print market has changed considerably since then. The number of specialist dealers has been much reduced, with much specialist knowledge being lost as dealers retire. It seems that Old Master prints do not to have the same appeal that they once did which is a shame as London was once a cornerstone of the world print market. It has become much harder now to find specific works, with many items extremely rare.