A fruit piece
Etching and mezzotint, 1781, after Jan van Huysum (1683?-1749)
Bequeathed by Robert Hyde Greg 1954
One of 162 prints produced for the large-scale publishing project that aimed to reproduce the paintings in the collection of the Earl of Orford at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, called the 'first collection in Europe'. The enterprise was undertaken by the leading print publisher John Boydell (1719-1804), who since the 1760s had been trying to raise the profile of English reproductive printmaking. This latest initiative was spurred on by the increasing likelihood that the family would need to sell the pictures to pay off large debts. The sale eventually took place in 1779, purchased for an unknown amount by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796) for the new Hermitage gallery in St Petersburg. So great was the collection, which comprised paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt, as well as works by contemporary English painters, that the sale was discussed in Parliament and provoked national debate. After the sale a rumour circulated that the pictures had been lost at sea, and the imaginary event was later depicted by John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) in a watercolour now in the Fitzwilliam Museum's collection.
The wreck of the Houghton Hall pictures
Watercolour on paper
Bequeathed by Joseph Prior 1919
The plates for The Houghton Gallery were executed throughout the period 1774 to 1788, at which point Boydell re-issued them bound in two folio volumes with frontispieces and title-pages (entitled A Set of Prints Engraved after the Most Capital Paintings in the Collection of Her Imperial Majesty the Empress of Russia, Lately in the Possession of the Earl of Orford at Houghton in Norfolk). Boydell commissioned 45 printmakers to contribute plates to the project, although he also included re-issued prints from previous projects, primarily Most Capital Paintings (available in bound volumes from 1769). Earlom's prints are some of the finest: 26 of his plates were used for the project, the largest number contributed by a single artist.
In A Fruit Piece and its pendant A Flower Piece, Earlom skilfully combined the techniques of etching and mezzotint to translate van Huysum's highly detailed, colourful painting into a black and white printed medium. The image to the right and the cropped detail below are of a proof impression of A Flower Piece, pulled from the plate before the plate was 'grounded' with mezzotint tone. Earlom first worked on fine etched lines to give definition to the delicate forms, and on areas of stippling to provide gentle shading, before starting work on the mezzotint tone to more fully render the effect of light, shade and an array of different surface textures.