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Works of the first British female printmaker go on show at the Fitzwilliam Museum
Caroline Watson (c.1760-1814), Contemplation [Elizabeth Stanhope], 1790, stipple after Joshua Reynolds.

CAMBRIDGE.- The prints and private letters of the first British woman professional engraver are on show 200 years after her death.

Caroline Watson was one of the most successful engravers of her age, with patrons including Queen Charlotte and the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. A selection of her prints and several of her letters are being displayed in the Charrington Print Room alongside examples of other female printmakers in late Georgian England. For the very first time light is being shed on these largely unknown female artists.

Although Watson was the daughter of celebrated mezzotint printmaker James Watson, she was an early adopter of the new ‘stipple technique’, which was ideal for producing delicate portraits and decorative prints, many of which were aimed at female buyers. Nearly all those women who had earlier made prints were either amateurs, making prints for amusement, or members of printmakers’ families, playing their part in family enterprises. Watson made her mark creating prints catering to feminine taste, capitalising on the growing market of women with money to spend on luxury items.

Transcripts of her letters in the Museum’s collection, written to William Hayley, the writer who employed her to illustrate his Life of George Romney, are being published in the accompanying exhibition catalogue. They read like a Jane Austen novel; her personal relationships, everyday annoyances and triumphs written in careful prose in letters revealing her working secrets as the greatest and first female printmaker in Georgian England. Although Watson associated with royalty, aristocrats and celebrated painters, her writing shows her to be a demure and discreet woman who valued her privacy and worried constantly about her health. She never married, dedicated to her profession to her final days.

The exhibition is curated by David Alexander, Honorary Keeper of British Prints, who has also donated 36 of Caroline Watson’s prints to the Museum, significantly adding to the Museum’s collection on her life and work.

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