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Masterpieces at the Beaney

Rare etchings by Canaletto are currently on display at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury, alongside engravings after famous Old Master paintings by Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo in the exhibition Perfect Lines: Old Masters in Print.


Until photography was developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, paintings by Italian Renaissance artists were reproduced and became known through engravings. These prints were made by highly skilled artist-engravers, who translated the colour and form of paintings into black and white lines and dots, incised on metal (usually copper) plates. Their specialist and finely detailed work took many months, and often years. Once ready the metal plates were inked and wiped, so that ink stayed only within the incised lines. Dampened paper was laid over the plate, and the plate and paper passed through a press similar to a laundry mangle; inked lines thereby transferred to paper, creating prints. Large, beautifully detailed engravings on display include Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and Deposition, as well as Michelangelo’s Delphic Sybil and Titian’s Woman Dressing.

Canaletto, like Rembrandt a century earlier, made original works of art as prints. Etchings and engravings could be reprinted many times and therefore made available to multiple buyers. Their cost was lower than for paintings, so prints were also more accessible to a wider range of buyers. The Canaletto prints on display include a rare sheet of four etchings, usually cut and sold separately. The etching process itself is also explained in the exhibition.


A group of prints by and after J. M. W. Turner shows the way his watercolours were reproduced as monochrome images and the variety of interpretations made by different artist-engravers, as well as the changes printing plates underwent over time. Portraits were also disseminated through engravings and there is a range exhibited, including images by Sir Anthony van Dyck, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Concurrently on display at the Beaney are drawings by the Victorian artist Alfred Stevens RA (1817-75) from the collection of sculptor Alfred Drury (1846-1944). Stevens studied in Italy for eight years and became well versed in the work of Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and other Old Masters. After returning to England he worked on a wide range of projects, from painted decoration to designs for silverware. From the latter part of the 1850s he designed and created monumental sculpture, notably the Wellington Memorial in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. He was a superb draughtsman and revered by fellow artists, including Drury, who formed a large collection of drawings by Stevens, which influenced his own work. So admired was Stevens in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that he was dubbed ‘England’s Michelangelo’. The Beaney display has been organised to complement the exhibition of Drury’s work at the University of Kent’s Studio 3 Gallery.

Don’t miss a major highlight at the Beaney early next year – Edouard Manet’s Execution of Maximilian. This much-loved painting from the collection of the National Gallery, London, will be coming to the Beaney in January 2014. Since opening last September the Beaney has attracted over 500,000 people, developing a strong regional and local profile, and has been selected as the first venue to host the first painting in a three year National Gallery Masterpiece Tour. The Masterpiece Tour is part of the National Gallery’s aim to promote the understanding, knowledge and appreciation of Old Master paintings to as wide an audience as possible. This opportunity to bring hugely popular National Gallery paintings to the public’s doorstep is being made possible by the generous support of Christie’s.

Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, painted about 1867-68, depicts the fatal moment when the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was captured by Mexican revolutionaries and executed alongside two of his generals in 1867. The Beaney exhibition, on view from 17 January to 16 March 2014, will present Manet’s masterpiece alongside John Opie’s Murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, painted about 1793 and a highlight of the Beaney’s collections. Both paintings use life-size figures to draw the viewer into the action, and both deaths were the result of trans-national political power struggles. The exhibition and supporting programme will focus on the way in which artists, including photographers, have selected and arranged their compositions to create iconic images that come to define events involving political killing. It will explore the power and use of such images, whether factual and eyewitness or manipulated, and their relationship to personal agendas and political context. A comprehensive supporting programme of activities and events is being developed in partnership with universities, colleges and the local community.

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