With its rich graphic collection, the Print Room of the Plantin-Moretus belongs to the 50 most important print rooms in the world. Yet, it is a relatively young art institution that only opened in 1939. The pre-history of the Print Room is closely connected with the Plantin-Moretus Museum, where the foundation of the collection was laid.
The history of origin of the Print Room goes back to Max Rooses, the first Conservator of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which was opened in 1877. Rooses was a specialist in the area of the history of the Antwerp Painters' School and the Old Masters, who determined the artistic boom of the graphic arts in Antwerp in the 16th and 17th Centuries. With the acquisition of prints and design drawings that were used as book illustrations, there was already at the beginning a clear connection between the purchasing policy of the museum and the printers' activities of the Officina Plantiniana. Max Rooses, however, did not limit himself to this coupling with the heritage of the famed printing house, but devoted himself, step by step, to the expansion of an autonomous graphic collection.
From his great importance placed upon the art of print-Rooses was an ardent collector of old and modern prints and drawings-he laid the foundation for the graphic collection of the later Print Room. The first important purchase that Max Rooses made in 1875 was the extensive graphic collection of Edouard ter Bruggen, which counted 2.965 prints from some 400 Antwerp engravers. The house of Plantin-Moretus on the Vrijdagmarkt, which was purchased by the City of Antwerp and established as a museum, became the "provisional" preservation place for this collection.
Max Rooses also profiled himself as a generous patron of the arts for his own institution. In 1905, from his personal collection he gifted some 150 valuable drawings by Old Masters such as Anthony Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens I, Joris Hoefnagel, Hans Bol, as well as modern works from Henri Leys and Henri De Braeckeleer, inter alia. In 1913, another large gift followed with master drawings by Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens and others. Typical for Max Rooses was that his patronage occurred in complete discretion, without official transfer to the city management or press releases.
The vision of Max Rooses on the collection policy would be of continuing importance with the development of the collection. Rooses chose for a directed definition and devoted himself to the acquisition of prints and drawings of Masters from the Antwerp School, originally concentrated on the 16th and 17th Centuries, but also quickly expanded to the 18th and 19th Centuries, as well as the 20th Century. The Antwerp orientation was never strictly interpreted by the usage of broad criteria: artists born or trained in Antwerp were naturally considered, but also those who were a member of the Saint Lucas Guild, who had ties with the Antwerp Painters' School, or whose studio was established in the city also were taken into consideration. This definition was respected by the successors of Rooses and is to date the basis of the collection policy of the Print Room.
The growth of the graphic collection of the Plantin-Moretus Museum was realised in the first period via three channels: directed purchases, gifts and the acquisitions of estates. A few examples are of interest to mention. In 1878, the Antwerp engraver and print merchant Jozef Linning left his collection to the City of Antwerp. The collection of Constant Cap, primarily with the work of graphic artists from the 19th Century, was purchased in 1915. The Clement van Cauwenberghs collection, which counted some 200 drawings from Old Masters, was one of the last private collections in Belgium and was only just in 1925 acquired after long negotiations. Critical arguments involved were that the collection should not be split up and should remain in public possession in Antwerp. Among others, with a masterpiece such as the Rubens drawing, Hercules and the Lion of Nemea, the purchase of this unique collection provided an increased value for the collection of graphic art for the Plantin-Moretus Museum/Print Room. Furthermore, in 1931 drawings were purchased at an auction in Leipzig from the collection of the Hermitage in Leningrad, from among others, Rubens, Lucas van Uden, Joannes Fijt and Jordaens. In 1934, yet three more large drawings by Jordaens were acquired from the Paris collection of Rouit-Berger and in addition there were also prints bought from the sale of the graphic collections of the Gotha Museum and the royal house of Saxen. Another well-known masterpiece, the Rubens drawing Hoeve te Luithagen, was purchased from the sale of the Henry Oppenheimer collection in London in 1936.
The large-scale Exhibition of Prints and Drawings of Antwerp Artists, organised in the City Festival Hall by the Committee of Antwerp Propaganda Works in 1936 presented some 2.000 drawings and prints from the meanwhile rich holding of the Plantin-Moretus Museum. The public-at-large was duly reached and the necessity for an adjusted infrastructure for the voluminous graphic collection was justified. The City of Antwerp opted for the establishment of an autonomous Print Room on the Vrijdagmarkt, next to the Plantin-Moretus Museum. City architect Van Averbeke drew the plans for the new building with a library, reading room, exhibition space and repository. On 11 March 1939, the City Print Room was ceremoniously opened by Mayor Camille Huysmans. Art Historian Ary Delen, who for years had already managed the collection in the Plantin-Moretus Museum, became the first conservator.
The conservatorship of Ary Delen was, however, overshadowed by the Second World War. The collections of the City Print Room were packed up in the summer of 1939 and taken to safety from the menacing danger of war. They were first placed in the cellars of the Antwerp City Hall, then during the German occupation in the castle of Lavaux-Ste-Anne. As an alternative during the war years, the Print Room developed a dynamic exhibition policy with short-running presentations of modern graphic work by artists such as Edgar Tijtgat, Edmond van Offel, Henri van Straten, Antoon Marstboom, Jaak Gorus, Jan Frans Cantré, Jos Léonard, Paul Joostens, Jos Hendrickx, Frans Dille, René de Coninck, and so forth. After the liberation followed the transport of the collection to the cellars of the National Bank and of the Société Générale in Brussels. On 2 January 1945, a V-bomb struck the Vrijdagmarkt. The material damage to the Plantin-Moretus Museum and the City Print Room was enormous. It would take until 1949 before the re-construction was complete and the collections could safely be stored in the renewed magazines.
In 1945 Ary Delen went on pension and Frank Van den Wijngaert was appointed as the Conservator of the City Print Room. He remained in that capacity until 1959. The statute of the institution also changed starting in 1952 when the administration of the City Print Room was combined with that of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, which came under the direction of Leon Voet. From the 1950's on, the City Print Room developed its specific operations with the maintenance and management of the collection as its core tasks. Among other things, this implied the inventory and cataloging of the works, the acquisitions by purchases and gifts of prints and drawings, scientific disclosures and making the collection publicly accessible via exhibitions with accompanying catalogs, giving works on loan for exhibitions at national museums and ones abroad, the organisation of a library and reading room operations. Leon Voet promoted a purchasing policy that-in line with Max Rooses-was directed primarily to Antwerp artists. In addition, the iconography of the City of Antwerp also received a great deal of thematic attention.
Since 1991, the Print Room, with its rich collection of prints and drawings, is a member of the International Advisory Committee of Keepers of Public Collections of Graphic Art, an international organisation that unites the fifty most important print rooms of the world. The bi-annual conferences, which the Committee organises always in a different country, are primarily important for the maintaining of international contacts and the exchange of expertise in the area of maintenance and management in all its aspects with specific regards to the graphic arts. Since 2008, the Secretarial seat of this association is held in the Plantin-Moretus Museum/Print Room by Marijke Hellemans, Conservator of the Print Room.
The collection of the Print Room today consists of some 3.500 old and 18.000 modern drawings in addition to 21.000 old and 26.000 modern prints. From these are 188 prints, signed by James Ensor, and there are 13 drawings by his hand. In addition, there is a significant collection of sketchbooks, print books, print folders, woodcuts and copper plates. The Print Room also has in permanent holding the Charles Van Herck collection, property of the King Baudouin Institution and a series of art folders, property of the Flemish Community.
Marijke Hellemans (conservator Print Room)