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Art review: Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper

10 May 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on Rembrandt prints that were left to the nation

© trustees of the british museum

Rembrandt’s etching Christ Appearing to the Apostles (1656), bequeathed by George Salting to the British Museum (1910,0212.388)

Rembrandt’s etching Christ Appearing to the Apostles (1656), bequeathed by George Salting to the British Museum (1910,0212.388)

FOR the better part of 50 years, Clayton Cracherode FSA (1730-99) was a Student of Christ Church, Oxford, and curate of St Margaret’s, Binsey.

His obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine recorded that, unusually for a person of quality (an aunt by marriage was the eldest daughter of the Jacobite Bishop Francis Atterbury), he had never learned to ride. Whether he held his uncle’s non-juring principles is not known, but might it explain why he never sought or accepted preferment?

Nor did he travel much, which is also a surprise. His father, Mordaunt Cracherode, had circumnavigated the world with George, later 1st Baron Anson, but the furthest journeys that his son ever took were from Oxford to London. He is buried in the cloister of Westminster Abbey, in the shadow of his old school.

In 1773, General Cracherode died. With his inheritance, his son supported himself as an avid bibliophile and print collector. His 1799 bequest contained 4500 volumes, which formed the core of the British Library, transforming the collection in Bloomsbury long before the gift of the King’s Library in 1828. His prints and engravings brought a wealth of material to the British Museum, of which he was a Trustee from 1784 until his death.

Many of the prints that he amassed are among the more than 60 works on paper by Rembrandt which have been brought together to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death. Some three dozen are of biblical and religious scenes, but the show also includes some of his many self-portraits, academic studies of nudes, sketches, and portrayals of his wife and mistress.

Cracherode owned versions of the 1641 Triumph of Mordecai, the 1653 Three Crosses, and both a small engraving (1644) of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt and a larger square-format print of the same scene from 1651. The close detail in each draws us intimately to see the artist at work.

On occasion, Rembrandt improved on the work of another; a larger-format engraving (c.1652) of The Rest on the Flight in which it is next to nigh impossible to spot the little figures and the donkey in the copse proves to have been cut from a plate first etched by Hercules Seghers in the 1630s and depicting Tobias and the angel in a landscape. Presumably, Rembrandt obtained the copperplate after the death of Seghers in 1638. Waste not, want not.

Rembrandt depicted the scholar-monk St Jerome no fewer than seven times. As a Doctor of the Church in the Latin West, Jerome was also something of a hero for Protestants as the father of biblical translation.

In one graphic that Rembrandt left half finished, the academic sits at a desk next to a pollarded willow, while his lion snuggles round the back of the tree trunk. A few stray lines suggest the crags above. Cracherode owned another in which Jerome’s cardinal’s hat appears more like a rustic peasant’s straw sun hat.

He also owned another print in which the elderly greybeard kneels beneath a tree, beside which is a lifesize wooden crucifix. In the distance on the left is the tower of a church. Rembrandt seems to have changed his mind halfway through composing this, and there is a sketchy cowled figure kneeling at some remove from Jerome.

This has led modern editors to entitle it Saint Francis Beneath a Tree, Praying, and to identify the other figure as Brother Leo. But the 18th-century collector was surely right: the kneeling saint is more than twice the age of the Poor Man from Assisi at his death in 1226.

Another puzzle comes in the 1656 etching of Christ appearing to his disciples (George Salting Bequest). Rembrandt forsakes experimentation with living models to offer a visionary scene. Unless I am mistaken, there are 13 figures in the upper room surrounding the Risen Lord.

Although there are some large prints on show, including The Raising of Lazarus, the so-called “Hundred Guilder Print” (c.1647-49) and The Death of the Virgin, others are no larger than some of the artists’ postcards that are on show in the neighbouring room (“The World Exists to be Put on a Postcard”, a show that also runs till 4 August). They tell a quite different story.

“Rembrandt: Thinking on Paper” is in Room 90 at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1, until 4 August. Phone 020 7323 8000. www.britishmuseum.org

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