The Victoria and Albert Museum must be praised for this full-colour catalogue of all the Early Netherlandish, Dutch and Flemish drawings in its collections. It comes more than 30 years after its last drawings catalogue describing its Italian works and must be admired in an age in which online collections databases are increasingly replacing costly print publications.
The drawings collection at the V&A is not so well known as the much larger and richer collection of the British Museum only a few miles away. Although the V&A nowadays holds a world-class collection of art and design in its broadest sense, its origins lie in the Government School of Design, and its guidelines issued in 1863 state that new acquisitions “should be confined to objects wherein fine art is applied to some purpose of utility”.
It is clear from the present catalogue that this directive was soon disregarded. The roughly 800 drawings included in it, dating from the 15th century to 1900, are top quality and by some of the most famous artists of the Dutch and Flemish schools, such as Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck and Rembrandt. The sheets cover a wide range of genres such as landscapes, figure studies, portraits and topographic views. Even so, some impressive V&A sheets do have a decorative purpose – for example, a tapestry design by Jacob Jordaens, a drapery study by Jacques de Gheyn III, and a print design by Nicolaes Berchem.
On the whole these masterpieces have entered the collection through a handful of generous bequests and donations. The most important one is that of Alexander Dyce whose bequest in 1869 included a quarter of the Dutch and Flemish works described, including two by Rembrandt and nine by Rubens.
The publication is beautifully presented in a slip case containing two volumes. The catalogue is preceded by a worthy introduction outlining the history of the department written by Mark Evans, head of paintings and photographs at the V&A.
The first of the two volumes focuses on the Dutch drawings and has largely been compiled by Jane Shoaf Turner, head of the Rijksprentenkabinet in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
Christopher White, former director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, was responsible for the Flemish drawings included in the second volume, as well as the sheets by the maritime artists Willem van de Velde I and II. Many of the drawings have never been published or studied before.
White had originally been asked to compile a catalogue back in 1983 but due to his other commitments, only a typescript list was finished. He and Turner began research for the present volumes in 2004 and the result is this thorough catalogue, with extensive entries followed by a list of watermarks and indices.
This publication marks a very fine achievement and we can only look forward to the V&A’s next drawings catalogue – of its French collection.
Dutch & Flemish Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum Christopher White, Jane Shoaf Turner and Mark Evans, eds V&A Publishing, two volumes, 672pp, £200 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Benelux bonanza'