Rare collection of mezzotints acquired for British Museum

  • 4 October 2010

We've helped the British Museum acquire a magnificent and rare collection of prints dating from the 1680s to the 19th century that give valuable insight into scarcely recorded aspects of British life.

Comprising 7,250 prints that chart social history up until the First World War, the collection includes rare 17th century mezzotints called ‘drolls’ which recorded semi-popular British culture and visual iconography. It also includes 18th and 19th century portrait and subject prints along with the Northumberland album – an intact album of satires on fashion and other topical subjects assembled by the Duchess of Northumberland in the 1770s.

In the late 18th century, British printmaking became one of the UK’s greatest exports and an essential element of Continental Anglomania. Mezzotint is a copperplate process that burnishes down a roughened copper plate so that the design emerges as light against black. It was the first tonal method of printing and was the medium by which British prints took Continental markets by storm in the late 1760s and 1770s.

This outstanding collection cost a total of £1,250,000. We gave £250,000 towards the acquisition, alongside a £440,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF). The British Museum Friends gave £300,000, a total of £161,987 was raised from private donations. £100,000 came from other British Museum sources.

Antony Griffiths, Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department at the British Museum said: "This is the largest acquisition for the British Museum print collection in the last hundred years, and makes available to the world a very important part of the history of British art."

Stephen Deuchar, our director, said: "We’re thrilled to have helped make this acquisition possible, alongside the support of the NHMF. It’s a great example of how private and public funding can come together to support important acquisitions."

This outstanding collection exists due to the dedication of the Hon. Christopher Lennox-Boyd who has spent nearly 40 years amassing a unique collection of more than 40,000 British mezzotints. After examination of this extraordinary collection, the British Museum has acquired a selection of these rare prints to fill gaps unrepresented in any other UK collection.

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Press release