Western prints

The British Library has a vast number of prints in Rare Books, Manuscripts and Maps

About the collection

The British Library has the largest collection of prints in the country. Our collection has been rich in printed images since its foundation in 1753 as part of the British Museum. In particular, Hans Sloane’s collection contains important illustrated books and collections of prints such as Louis XIV’s Cabinet du Roy, a collection of engravings of art, and plans and views of the royal palaces and gardens at Versailles.

The collections of the British Library and British Museum were originally united, but from the early 19th century prints judged to be particularly ‘fine’ were removed from Printed Books, Manuscripts and Maps and placed in the British Museum’s new Department of Prints and Drawings. Illustrated books or collections of images containing accompanying text were retained by the future British Library. There have been many subsequent transfers, and works by many artists and printmakers are represented in both institutions. The researcher often needs to visit both to gain a full appreciation of the work of artists such as Durer or Piranesi, or to trace the provenance of collections.

The Library’s prints represent a great variety of media from woodcut, wood engraving, engraving, etching, mezzotint, lithography and photo-mechanical processes. They are also diverse in format, from single sheet images to illustrated books, portfolios, extra-illustrated books, annuals, scrapbooks and albums, with large collections of ephemera such as invitations, trade-cards, calendars, greetings cards and posters. The subject matter is very varied, with strong collections of literary and scientific illustrations, portraits, satires, topographical views and plans.

Highlights include the Beudecker Atlas, George III’s King’s Topographical Collection which incorporates the antiquarian collections of Cassiano dal Pozzo,  John Bagford’s collections of titlepages and ballads, Joseph Banks’ collections of printed books, particularly relating to natural history and Iceland, Sarah Sophia Banks’s collections of broadsides and other prints, and the Evanion collection of ephemera.

What is available online?

A selection of prints have been digitized and can be viewed on the Online Gallery, such as Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 De Humani Corporis Fabrica, part of the Beudecker Atlas, illustrations from books published by Italian Academies between 1525 and 1700, around 2,000 Renaissance and early modern festival books, John James Audubon’s The Birds of America and Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737-39 Herbal.

Others are available on EBBO and ECCO, Images Online, Europeana, Google Books and Flickr.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Prints from the Western Heritage Collections are distributed across the Library’s collection areas and can be found using Explore the British Library and Search Our Catalogue: Archives and Manuscripts.

The King’s Topographical Collection is currently being catalogued and digitised: its records can be found on the Explore catalogue by searching ‘George III’ and ‘maps’ or ‘views’ with the place you are interested in.

What is available in other organisations?

There are extensive collections of prints in various other institutions including the British Museum, Royal Collection, Museum of London, Guildhall, Society of Antiquaries, Royal Society, Royal Academy of Art, Royal Institute of British Architects, National Army Museum, National Maritime Museum, Imperial War Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum, Ashmolean, Bodleian, Worcester College, Oxford, National Portrait Gallery, Wellcome Collection , Victoria and Albert Museum, Getty Research Institute, Lewis Walpole Library,  Folger Shakespeare Library, Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, San Francisco, Library of Congress, and Yale.

Online projects include British Prints to 1700, incorporating  British Book illustrations 1604-1640, British Annuals and Giftbooks, the Oxford Digital Library, French emblems at Glasgow, the Hortus Nitidissimis at Kew, John Slezer's Theatrum Scotiae at the National Library of Scotland, John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments,  and Hollar at the University of Toronto.

Further information

For futher reference works, see:

Catalogue of Maps, Prints, Drawings, etc., forming the geographical and topographical collection attached to the Library of his late Majesty King George the third. (London, 1829.)

Anderson, John Parker, The Book of British Topography. A classified catalogue of the topographical works in the Library of the British Museum relating to Great Britain and Ireland. (London, 1881.)

Dodgson, Campbell, Early German and Flemish Woodcuts. (London, 1903, 1911.)

Hind, A.M., Early Italian Engravings, a complete corpus including prints in the British Museum, 7 vols. (London, 1938-1948.)

Stephens, F.G. and George, M.D., Personal and Political Satires, British Museum/British Library collection catalogue, 11 vols. (1870-1954.) Microfilm available from Chadwick Healy

O'Donoghue, F. and Hake, H.M., Engraved British Portraits, British Museum/British Library collection catalogue, 6 vols. (1908-1925.)

Tattersfield, Nigel, The complete illustrative works of Thomas Bewick, (London : The British Library : The Bibliographical Society ; New Castle, DE : Oak Knoll Press, 2011.)

Tattersfield, Nigel, John Bewick : engraver on wood 1760-1795, an appreciation of his life, together with an annotated catalogue of his illustrations and designs (London : British Library, c2001.)

Tattersfield, Nigel, Bookplates by Beilby & Bewick : a biographical dictionary of bookplates from the workshop of Ralph Beilby, Thomas Bewick & Robert Bewick, 1760-1849, (London : British Library, c1999.)