Illustration of a pastoral scene

Prints and drawings at the British Museum and British Library

Felicity Myrone explores how prints and drawings are generally encountered in museum and library collections, and how this affects their meaning and status.

Libraries categorise and treat prints and drawings differently from museums or galleries. This is true of the collections now divided between the British Library and the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings. Prints and drawings’ perceived status and current (in)-accessibility at the British Library is the result of complex and often unintentional sequences of events. This article explores how the institutional history of prints and drawings across the British Museum and British Library can illuminate how prejudices which we have come to accept as natural have come about.


A pastoral landscape

This watercolour of Oxford by Paul Sandby was used as an extra-illustration to Walter Thornbury’s Life of  J.M.W. Turner.

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When we encounter a library or museum’s collections we may naturally assume that they are appropriate to that institution, stable and even complete, without fully understanding the tangled history behind them. As cultural historian WJT Mitchell writes, vision is a cultural construction, learned and cultivated – part of a history interconnected with institutional history, connoisseurship, access modes, technology, and social and institutional practices of display.[1] Therefore the literal placing of images and their subsequent cataloguing has wielded power. We are all arguably conditioned to have an instinctive judgement of high, fine art meaning paintings by ‘names’, shown in galleries, or prints and drawings collected, catalogued and mounted as single items (collected and displayed as they are in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum and other print rooms) versus low, ‘functional’ graphic imagery by ‘lesser’ figures and often in the form of unlisted prints, ephemera, albums, or illustrated books (the library format).

In general, the prints and drawings collections have been perceived as divided up between the British Museum and the British Library according to whether the images were valued as autonomous ‘art’ or formed supporting ‘evidence’ for largely text-based research. But these divisions have hazy origins and have never been clear cut. They were often arbitrary, and even very prominent collectors’ collections remain split across the institutions, divided by subject, medium, format (with single images extracted for Prints and Drawings) and perceived quality, as provenance was not a concern for the 19th century curator.[2] The result is a rather random distribution, with for example prints and drawings collected by John Bagford and Sarah Sophia Banks found in Printed Books, Manuscripts and Prints and Drawings, and those of Hans Sloane and Joseph Banks divided the same way and further with the Natural History Museum.

Plan of Cambridge

A coloured manuscript plan of Cambridge by William Smith.

William Smith was a sixteenth-century herald whose contribution to early topography included the plans and panoramas included in his 'Particuler Description of England' (1588).

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What we now know as the British Library was originally part of the British Museum, and Prints and Drawings originates in Printed Books and Manuscripts.[3] The bequest of book and print collector Reverend Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode had led to the creation of the Cracherode room, a lockable room which a member of staff of printed books, William Beloe, had access to and was responsible for admitting visitors to.[4] However, Beloe was taken advantage of by the caricaturist Robert Dighton who gained his confidence and on being given virtually unsupervised access, stole from the collection – this led to a separate department of Prints and Drawings being created in 1808 from the future British Library’s collections, as a subsidiary of the Department of Antiquities until 1837.[5] Initially the concern was entirely security – the Trustees of the Museum went around the shelves of Printed Books and Manuscripts removing all albums and volumes they thought at risk for the new department. They felt a lockable room with a fortified door was now necessary for loose prints and drawings, and that a catalogue should be made listing every item as it had been hard to prove what was missing.

The British Museum’s (and other print rooms’) holdings remain predominantly such loose items, collected and arranged by maker and subject, with a focus until very recently on ‘known’ and revered makers, and the aim of covering genres such as portraiture and caricature (as published catalogues attest). Pictures of places classed as British ‘landscape watercolours’ feature heavily, but ‘topography’ has been actively avoided as the realm of the local collection and British Library.

While the effect may not have been intentional, art historians have come to revere single sheet items over illustrations in books, although they may be identical. Through the accessibility and renown of the British Museum’s prints and drawings, we have come to expect ‘fine art’ to be housed at the British Museum, and certain genres to be well represented at the British Library – more ‘evidence’ based works relating to themes such as science, exploration and topography. These have historically been dismissed as lowly and insignificant, with the multitude of illustrations to fiction, caricatures, portraits etc which our collections also abound in forgotten completely. And although what became the British Library’s Printed Books, Manuscripts and later Maps departments have continued to house and actively collect prints and drawings since 1808, without individual cataloguing or a prints and drawings department in the separate institution, they have inevitably suffered from a lack of visibility.

Hyam Church, Suffolk

Faded sketch of a house and tree

This pencil drawing was ‘discovered’ at the British Library in 2007 – the uncovering of a drawing by an artist as revered as Constable in the ‘unexpected’ context of a library rather than a gallery or museum made headline news around the world.

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If a researcher is interested in the work of a single artist or the use of a medium such as a print technique, they will have difficulty in locating examples in the Library simply because of the mass of potentially relevant material, its historical dispersal across the collections, and library and archival cataloguing practices. We have huge collections of prints and drawings, with a focus on themes such as local history, travel, topography, exploration, architecture, fortification, archaeology, ecclesiastical history, antiquarianism, natural history, garden design, botany, medicine, anatomy, science, engineering, alchemy, magic, religion, heraldry, costume and fashion. The Manuscripts catalogues tend to cover collections of drawings by subject and date, with less consistent record of artist or medium, and in the Class Catalogue in the Manuscripts Reading Room visual works tend to be listed under the subject they relate to rather than under ‘Art’, i.e. for views, ‘Topography’ or a county.

The Cries of London

Title page and facing illustration depicting a street scene with figures outside a shop, from The Cries of London

Sam Syntax's Description of the Cries of London is an example of an expensive, lavishly-produced chapbook, 1821.

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As the national collection of illustrated books, our holdings of prints far outnumber the British Museum’s, (even a single page of letter-press justified a set of plates being held by Printed Books rather than Prints and Drawings until 1973, and the few illustrated books found in Prints and Drawings tend to duplicates of those in the Library, transferred from it) but most catalogue records for the printed books do not even mention images, their makers or their subject matter beyond phases such as ‘ill’ or ‘with cuts’ or ‘plates’.[6] All known copies of a publication tend to be listed on a single record, and variations in illustration has never been a priority. Specialist databases such as the English Short Title Catalogue can be more revealing, but even there relatively full information supplies pagination and a short note about the first engraver listed, but not other engravers or artists or the prints’ titles, subjects, order or medium. Illustrations are also currently poorly served by book digitisation projects, with no way of searching for subject, medium or author of images on systems such as Googlebooks or ECCO. Over a million images from the British Library’s digitised 17th, 18th and 19th printed books are presented on Flickr a valuable resource which links the image back to the publication’s record, but again more metadata is needed before standard information for art historical and print research will be possible.

Unique compilations of prints and drawings tend to be found in what used to be appendices in the British Library’s printed catalogues – effectively the extra evidence for any topic. Now ‘a collection of’, can be a fruitful search on our electronic catalogue. A single such ‘collective record’ can cover hundreds, even thousands of images, very probably by multiple hands, and possibly executed over a period of several centuries. A typical example is Richard Percival’s collection relating to St Pancras. The view of the Foundling Hospital below is part of this collection. Special copies are also noted but hardly celebrated – ‘extra-illustrated’, ‘grangerised’ or ‘with insertions’ can mean expanded to multiple volumes with unique materials.[7] Ironically this form of cataloguing, though its leading to the images’ inaccessibility and even invisibility, may have actually preserved collections intact. Those at the British Library can now be used to study their original owners’ arrangements and indices, while works transferred to Prints and Drawings tended to be broken up and individual images placed in their correct series, by maker or subject.

A view of the Foundling Hospital Chapel

Print depicting the interior of the Foundling Hospital Chapel, where there are uniformed children standing in a line and adults gathered around them

Charles Dickens is known to have worshipped at the Foundling Hospital's chapel, depicted here in 1774.

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Arguably the scholarly cataloguing of the entire genre of illustration is in its infancy. While prints in general have of course been researched, with a strong focus on the British Museum’s collection, there has been very little work on book illustration beyond a handful of people, place or medium specific bibliographies.[8] This again is symptomatic of the strong preference in art historical scholarship for the single sheet. The dismissal of images as mere ‘resources’ has motivated their transferral to libraries, and in turn their presence in libraries has encouraged their continued use as such ‘resources’. As Antony Griffiths has written – ‘art historians usually ignore prints, print historians usually ignore books, while book historians rarely seem able to cope with the prints that appear on their pages’.[9]

Addressing this problem is a huge task. It involves not only the documentation of vast quantities of images which have historically been overlooked, comparing copies of books which appear to be identical on bibliographic catalogue records but whose illustrations will vary considerably, but also tackling questions of value and classification. It is precisely this which lies at the heart of the current major cataloguing project for prints and drawings at the British Library. We are not only cataloguing around 40,000 images from George III’s King’s Topographical Collection, but also addressing their provenance and useage, and through the related Transforming Topography research project building academic discourse and public awareness in the form of the Picturing Places online publications and related conference.

We aim to try to combat the impression that images found in a library are a lowly form of straightforward evidence, or ‘windows into reality’, and to highlight how vast and underused a resource they remain. Doing this in the context of a library is challenging, there are obstacles in terms of institutional history and the presumptions and perspectives of librarians as well as simple scale. If we aim to fully explore visual art, and topography in particular, we do, though, need to do this work. We need to recognise the value of prints and drawings in libraries as well as in museum collections to get a fuller sense of the richness, the complexity, of art history, and of the losses, prejudices and arbitrary decisions which have helped shape that history. We have to remember the historical genesis of institutions and their cataloguing systems when we are looking at their collections, and be aware of the ‘tyranny’ of categories. 19th century classification has cast a long shadow on the perceived value of the British Library’s prints and drawings, which have generally been judged as a ‘salon des refuses'.[10]


[1] W.J.T Mitchell, Picture Theory (Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[2] Collectors whose collections are divided include Hans Sloane, John Bagford, Joseph Banks, Sarah Sophia Banks and George III.

[3] The two institutions only divided in 1973.

[4] Antony Griffiths, ‘The Revd C. M. Cracherode’, in A.Griffiths (ed.) Landmarks in print collecting: connoisseurs and donors at the British Museum since 1753 (London: British Museum Press, 1996), pp. 43–64.

[5] Griffiths, Landmarks in Print Collecting, pp. 10, 49-50, 60, 276-83.

[6] Antony Griffiths, The Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. User’s Guide (London: British Museum Press, 1987), p. 5.

[7] Such records include [A collection of 222 engravings of various places in Upper Austria commencing with Ahleitten and ending with Zellhofen] 744.a.11., [A Collection of 701 Engravings relating chiefly to the topography of Kent] ([London], [1680-1838]) Maps C.29.c.11., or extra-illustrated books such as The History and Topography of the County of Surrey, by O. Manning, enlarged by W. Bray, 1847, to which Richard Percival has added over 6,000 original drawings, prints, maps, plans and other pieces of ephemera. The resulting work comprises 30 volumes. Crach.1.Tab.1.b.1.

[8] Such as Bernard Adams, London illustrated 1604-185: a survey and index of topographical books and their plates (London; Library Association, 1983) or John Roland Abbey, Scenery of Great Britain and Ireland in aquatint and lithography, 1770-1860. From the library of J. R. Abbey. A bibliographical catalogue (London: Curwen Press, 1952, reprinted Dawson, 1972)

[9] Antony Griffiths, Prints for Books: Book Illustration in France 1760-1800, (London: British Library, 2004), p. x.

[10] John Barrell, 'The Virtues of Topography', London Review of Books, vol.35, no.1 (3 Jan 2013).

Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone
  • Felicity Myrone is an art historian and curator with a particular interest in 17th-19th-century works on paper, their collecting histories, and the historical relationships between the image collections at the British Library and British Museum.

    She worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the British Museum’s Department of Prints and Drawings before joining the British Library as Curator of Topography in 2006. In 2015 she became Lead Curator, Western Prints and Drawings, with sole responsibility for prints and drawings in the printed books, maps and manuscripts collections.

    She led an externally funded team cataloguing and digitising George III’s maps and views, the King’s Topographical Collection, and managed a related research project, Transforming Topography. One outcome of the latter is the British Library webspace, Picturing Places. Other projects include ongoing cataloguing of prints and drawings, and incorporation of Mark McDonald’s catalogue of Cassiano dal Pozzo’s print collection and the BL satires described by Stephens and George.

    She has hosted PhD placements on Charles I's Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, William Blake, the King's Maritime Collection and the King's Topographical Collection.  

    Her research on the history and scope of the collections has also involved hosting invited workshops in 2013 and 2015, and an international conference in 2016. She was awarded the Ian Willison Fellowship to the Rare Book School, University of Virginia in 2009, a Georgian Papers Fellowship in 2016, and most recently a Paul Mellon Centre Mid-Career Fellowship for 'Art in the Library', investigating how the fused and intertwined institutional histories of the British Museum, Natural History Museum and British Library have shaped attitudes to prints and drawings.

    She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and a Trustee of the Walpole Society.