In addition to collecting books, Pepys amassed a collection of prints, drawings and etchings throughout his lifetime which in 1700 he bound into albums and categorised by different themes. The process of gathering the prints into albums formed part of Pepys’ wider activity in his retirement of setting his library into its final order.
Pepys is not considered by experts as a ‘connoisseur’ of prints in comparison to other collectors of the time, such as his great friend John Evelyn. Nevertheless, Pepys managed to collect prints and etchings by notable artists such as Dürer, Raphael, Cranach, Hollar, Rubens and Rembrandt. Amongst the finest prints in the collection are exceptionally early (first ‘state’) impressions of Rembrandt’s ‘Christ Presented to the People’ and ‘The Three Crosses’. These prints appear under the category ‘New Testament’, in part two of Pepys’ album ‘My Miscellany of Prints General’ (PL 2984 pt.ii). The National Gallery in London is currently collaborating with the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in hosting a major exhibition of Rembrandt’s work. Therefore, it is an opportune moment to showcase two of the artist’s works from the Pepys Library in our blog, especially because other versions of the two prints illustrated below are appearing in the exhibition.
This work depicts Christ bound in chains surrounded by soldiers, high on the balcony of Pontius Pilate’s palace in full view of the crowd below. Pilate is asking the crowd whether he should release Barabbas or Jesus. Rembrandt exaggerates the scale of Christ, Barabbas and Pilate, to heighten the sense of human drama. Christ Presented to the People was created at the apex of Rembrandt’s printmaking career. The image is created using the ‘drypoint’ technique (using a hard-pointed needle to incise the design onto a copper plate, to which ink is applied; paper or vellum is then laid over the plate, and heavy pressure is then applied with a press to create the print). The plate used for this etching was reworked several times by Rembrandt and he made various changes to the image. This is a fine impression created from the plate’s first ‘state’, thus making it a very rare example. All the known surviving impressions of this first ‘state’ of the plate are printed on Japanese paper rather than European paper.
This image of the crucifixion of Jesus is considered one of Rembrandt’s finest works across all media, and has been cited as a highlight of the current exhibition at the National Gallery.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s impression of the same image is also on vellum, as are all of the known surviving impressions of this first ‘state’ of the plate. According to the description on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, the use of vellum ‘infuses the composition with a warm light. Vellum holds ink on the surface, softening lines and enhancing the richness of the drypoint burr.’
The print albums are a fascinating collection, not only due to their contents but they are also an insight into the practice of print collecting in the 17th century. The majority of the albums remain bound as Pepys had them. However, some have been disbound for conservation reasons and we are able to display leaves from these particular albums in our display cases. Two of the leaves currently on show in the Pepys Library depict inventions for fire fighting devised after the Great Fire of London in 1666. They are from Pepys’ album entitled ‘My collection of prints & drawings (as farr as extant and recoverable) relating to the citys of London & Westminster and their environs. Put together Anno Domini 1700.’ Or, ‘London and Westminster’ for short!
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
Acknowledgements and References
With thanks to Craig Hartley from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge who checked and amended a draft copy of this blog post.
Aspital, A.W. (compiler) : Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College Cambridge. Volume III: Prints and drawings. Part i : General (Suffolk : Boydell and Brewer, 1980)
Hinterding, E., Luijten, G. and Royalton-Kisch, M. : Rembrandt the printmaker (London, The British Museum Press in association with the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2000)
Hinterding, E. and Rutgers, J. : The New Hollstein Dutch & Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts 1450-1700: Rembrandt Text II 1636-1665, (Amsterdam, Sound & Vision publishers, 2013)
White, C. : Rembrandt as an etcher: a study, 2nd edition (New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1999)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York