Thanks to the assistance of Lloyd De Beer and Naomi Speakman, both in progress with individual collaborative PhDs at the British Museum, the Courtauld has organised several handling sessions for postgraduate students over the past few years – you can read a report from an earlier session here.
The March session was kindly hosted by the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings department, and focused on Master W and Key (active c. 1465–1490), an anonymous Netherlandish engraver named after the shape of his monogram. Most of the eighty-two extant works by this artist are ornament prints, but he is also known for his engravings of ships, the first known representations of this kind.
Both aspects of the Master’s production were discussed during the handling session, when we had the opportunity to analyze several prints by the artist, including:
While the ships may be connected with the ducal fleet of Charles the Bold of Burgundy, scholars have generally interpreted the architectural prints as patterns to be used by craftsmen in the workshop. Nevertheless, discussion during the session raised many questions on the cost, circulation and market of such early prints. Although a modern perspective may see the printed image as a cheap, mass-produced medium, these early architectural examples are very complex, and often required the painstaking engraving of more than one plate, printed on multiple sheets. Would such time-consuming creations really have offered a more convenient alternative to the exchange of drawings among workshops? What other reasons may have contributed to the spread of such designs?
Although this remained an open question, consideration of prints such as Alart du Hameel’s Design for a Gothic baldachin revealed that early architectural prints could be intentionally used to advertise their maker’s expertise in design and geometry: this print features a prominent signature, a mason’s mark, and an abbreviated ground-plan which seems to imply superior technical expertise. The same consummate skill is show in Wenzel von Olmütz’s Elevation of a Gothic Pinnacle with a Hexagonal Ground Plan, although in contrast to du Hameel, Olmütz did not sign his creation, and positioned plan and elevation one above the other, as typical of other Gothic drawings and of the Gothic design process in general.
Other treats of the handling session included Emperor Heraclius entering Jerusalem with the upright True Cross, designed by Alart du Hameel but signed ‘Bosche,’ presumably in an attempt to partake of the painter’s fame; Master ES’ figured alphabet; Albrecht Dürer’s large coloured drawing of a Gothic table fountain.
Objects for the session were selected by Dr Ursula Weekes, Dr Tom Nickson and Costanza Beltrami. We also put together a short list of suggested reading on the theme of late-Gothic architectural prints and alphabets:
Kik, Oliver, ‘From Lodge to Studio: Transmissions of Architectural Knowledge in the Southern Low Countries, 1480–1530.’ In The Notion of the Painter-Architect in Italy and the Southern Low Countries, edited by Piet Lombaerde (Turnhout, 2014)
Waters, Michael, ‘A Renaissance without Order: Ornament, Single-sheet Engravings and the Mutability of Architectural Prints,’ Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71, no. 4 (December 2002), pp. 488-523
Kavaler, Matt, ‘Gossart as Architect,’ and the entries on The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels (p. 126) and The Malvagna Diptych (p. 136) in Maryan W. Ainsworth (ed.), Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jean Gossart’s Renaissance: The Complete Works (New Haven and London, 2010)
Boekeler, Erika, ‘Building Meaning: The First Architectural Alphabet’. In Push Me, Pull You: Art and Devotional Interaction in Late Medieval & Early Modern Europe, eds S. Blick & L. Gelfand; E.J. (Brill, 2011), pp. 149-195.