Work of little-known female printmakers of Georgian England revealed 200 years after leading engraver's death

By Ben Miller | 09 December 2014

Delicate works by little-known female printmakers of Georgian England shown alongside letters of first female professional engraver

A black and white etching of a Georgian woman lounging on a sofa wearing a dress
Caroline Watson, Contemplation [Elizabeth Stanhope] (1790). Stipple, after Joshua Reynolds© Fitzwilliam Museum
Although Caroline Watson was one of the most distinguished engravers of her age – Queen Charlotte and Sir Joshua Reynolds were among her patrons – it is her letters, largely written to William Hayley, who asked her to illustrate his Life of George Romney, which are most prevalent among the Fitzwilliam’s collection.

A black and white etching of a Georgian boy in a royal gown standing on a hill
Prince William Frederick / Son to their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester (1784). Stipple, after Joshua Reynolds © Fitzwilliam Museum
They read, according to curator David Alexander, “like a Jane Austen novel”: Watson’s personal relationships (she never married, dedicating herself to her art until her death in 1714), irritations and triumphs are marked out in careful prose, offering the personal story of Georgian England’s first and most decorated female printmaker.

Despite her brushes with the great and the good, Watson’s writing reveals a “demure” and “discreet” character, concerned about her privacy and health.

“It is a peculiar quirk of the museum’s collection that it was a repository of a group of letters written by Caroline Watson before it was a repository of a great number of her prints,” says Director Tim Knox, who oversaw a donation to the collection of 36 of Watson’s prints held by David Alexander, the Honorary Keeper of British Prints who has devised this display of elegance.

“David Alexander has sought to right the balance by donating excellent examples of her work from his collection.

“We are also indebted to the British Museum, who allowed us to borrow key works for the exhibition to complement those from our own collection.”

The artist, whose father was the mezzotint printmaker James Watson, was an early adopter of the newly-discovered “stipple technique”, in which delicate portraits and decorative prints – aimed at female purchasers – were produced.

Before Watson and her peers emerged, nearly all female printmakers were amateurs, honing their art for amusement or as part of family enterprises. Watson targeted “feminine taste” at a time when women with expendable income formed an increasing part of the market.

  • Caroline Watson and Female Printmaking in Late Georgian England is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge until January 4 2015.

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An image of a colourful engraving showing a dramatic performance with people in crowns
Ophelia (1784). Stipple printed in colours, after Robert Edge Pine© Collection David Alexander
A black and white engraving of small children standing in front of a mother on a balcony
Maternal Tuition (1793). Stipple, after Catherine Maria Fanshawe © Fitzwilliam Museum
A black and white etching of a young girl in a dress cradling a bird in the countryside
La Colombe Retrouvée (1804). Stipple, after William Beechey © Fitzwilliam Museum
An image of a black and white engraving of a woman inside a gold and black frame
Eliz. Carter (1808). Stipple, after Sir Thomas Lawrence© Collection David Alexander
An image of a black ink georgian engraving of two small children with a bird in a courtyard
Catherine Maria Fanshawe (1765-1834), Children at a cottage door. Etching with aquatint© Collection David Alexander
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