LONDON - I spent Christmas in London this year, which I recommend to anyone who likes rain and pudding. Checking in at my favorite museums was on the agenda, of course. I admired Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors at the National Gallery—his clarity and control always grips me. I skipped the Hollywood Costume show at the Victoria & Albert Museum in favor of what I consider that institution’s strengths, namely jewelry, stained glass, silver and other decorative arts (plus a few neat Pre-Raphaelite paintings).

John Constable, R.A., Cloud Study, Hampstead, Tree at Right, 1821. © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: John Hammond.

My hotel was quite close to the Royal Academy, where I had never been before, so I finally went to see a show there: Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the Making of Landscape. Nothing could be more British, of course. England’s self-conception is all about its greenness, its fertility and its special status as an island nation. Give the public a picture with a towpath, a hedgerow and a youth leading a steer and they’re happy.

J.M.W. Turner, R.A., Norham Castle on the Tweed, 1816. © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

What wasn’t clear from the show’s billing was that it was overwhelmingly made up of prints. The website teased the few paintings, naturally, since the general public (yours truly included) is less likely to attend a prints show.

These were exquisite prints of course, done by masters. And one of the wall texts reminded of something I was already dimly aware of: back in the day, an artist was judged by his prints. After all, people mostly couldn't travel easily outside of their hometowns, so widely disseminated prints were the only way they were going to experience an artist’s work. A premium was put on perfectly composed, richly detailed prints. Paintings were special occasions.

Thomas Gainsborough R.A., Romantic Landscape, c. 1783. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited © Royal Academy of Arts, London.

It’s a reminder for collectors today, too. Lower in cost but still absolutely revealing of an artist’s craft, and with a cadre of devoted enthusiasts, prints are worth time and study. This is a topic I’ll return to once Print Week in New York rolls around again in the fall, with the IFPDA Print Fair as its centerpiece.