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To be explored through a major new digitisation project

Prince Albert's Raphael Collection

Giorgio Ghisi (1520–82) after Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (left half, proof state), c.1550. Engraving, 51.4 x 42.6 cm. RCIN 852527 ©

Prince Albert's Raphael Collection is an indispensable visual resource for the study of Raphael's work. It was commenced by Prince Albert in 1853 and largely completed by 1876, and it includes prints and photographs after almost every work regarded in the mid-nineteenth century as being by, or after Raphael, then considered the pre-eminent Renaissance master, and his circle. The Raphael Collection comprises 2,249 folio sheets and 307 loose items, equating to more than 5,000 prints and photographs.

Early in the reign of Queen Victoria, she and Prince Albert set about systematising the vast collection of prints inherited from the queen's uncle, George IV, and grandfather, George III. Among these were many reproductive prints after the Old Masters. Prince Albert was keen to harness these as an art-historical illustrative tool. Raphael was the natural first choice for a comprehensive survey as the prints after his works outnumbered those after all other artists. Further prints were acquired to fill the gaps in the collection, and Albert and his librarians embraced the new technology of photography to obtain an accurate image wherever possible. The Raphael drawings in the Royal Library were photographed and these photographs were incorporated into the Raphael Collection. Prince Albert offered copies of the photographs to other major collections to encourage them to allow access to their  holdings.

The thousands of prints and photographs were arranged into a single iconographic sequence following the principles of Adam Bartsch's seminal catalogue of Old Master prints (Le Peintre-graveur, published 1803–21). Twenty-five categories were developed, beginning with portraits of Raphael, moving through his biblical, historical and mythological paintings to portraits, with separate sections devoted to Raphael's major projects – his fresco cycles in the Vatican Palace and elsewhere, his tapestry designs (most notably those for the Sistine Chapel), and his architectural works. The prints and photographs were mounted on large folio sheets, placed in 49 portfolios, and housed in a custom-made cabinet in the Print Room at Windsor.

Photograph of Carl Ruland, standing beside a chair, holding a book in his right hand, looking at the camera. He was an art and literary historian; Private secretary to Prince Albert and assisted with the Raphael Project.

Mr Ruland, 1860. [Royal Household Portraits. Volume 57.] ©

Within each category, material was divided according to works firmly believed to be by Raphael and those attributed to him, and then subdivided again according to whether the print or photograph relates to the finished artwork, to a preparatory drawing, or to a work merely derived from Raphael's original. Early engravings, such as those by Raphael's collaborator Marcantonio Raimondi, were placed at the head of these sub-categories, followed by modern engravings and photographs. Such a method of organisation enabled Raphael's works to be traced from first thoughts through to final realisation and then on to the influence that each work had.

A comprehensive checklist, assembled by Albert's librarian Carl Ruland, was privately published in 1876, and includes an account of the genesis and development of the project, though Ruland came to lament its interminability. In January 1876 he wrote to a correspondent: ‘New information is pouring in every day – sometimes just after the necessary sheet of the catalogue has been printed’.

The nature and organisation of the Raphael Collection lends itself very well to online presentation, and the material is currently being catalogued and digitised.

Selected objects from the Raphael Collection

Attributed to Giuseppe Niccolò Vicentino (fl. c.1530–50)

The miraculous draught of fishes

Attributed to Giuseppe Niccolò Vicentino (fl. c.1530–50)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes

Charles Thurston Thompson (1816-68)

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes