Cataloguing prints

On Friday the British Printed Images pre-1700 Project and the CSB jointly hosted a workshop at Birkbeck College on cataloguing prints, to get guidance and report on progress of their web database of prints. So far they plan to have all the British Museum pre-1700 British prints in their online collection.

The main question for consideration, as it is for all cataloguers, was “What are you cataloguing?”  This turns out to be a tricky one for prints. Are you cataloguing the printed page, the image (as a “work”, in the sense of the Platonic idea of the subject), or the uses of a single plate or woodblock? Where do you draw the line between a “variant” and a separate catalogue entry?  The example of the “headless horseman” was shown.  Someone remarked that maybe we should consider this a portrait of the horse!

There were good reasons, based on bibliographic research, for people wanting to know about the uses of a single plate through time, or the uses of each of the separate woodblocks that might be used together, or in different combinations, to create a title page border.

Fantastic alphabet from the 15th century

I visited the Ashmolean Museum print room today and saw an engraved animated alphabet, by the Master E.S. These are very large letters, and each has a theme; sometimes real but exotic animals (a leopard–a chimpanzee — how did this German fellow see these?) or fantastic animals, or human beings of various occupations and types. It was made about 1460. Apparently no single museum has a complete alphabet, but you could see all the letters if you travel to Oxford, Berlin, and Dresden. The letters are large — too large for a book, which makes you wonder what they were meant for. Also, what was the fascination with letters, such that they provide the theme for a cycle of prints, like the seasons? Anything to do with printing presses?