The majority of images in the bpi1700 database come from the extensive collection in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum. These have been supplemented by various other items, most notably from the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Although by no means complete, the British Museum holds possibly the world’s finest collection of single-sheet prints from early modern Britain. The collection offers a good selection of a wide range of print genres, for example satires, portraits, prints issued as parts of sets and series, playing cards, title-pages from books, prints on historical and political subject matter, natural historical prints, landscapes, and religious prints. The main exceptions are of ballads (which are well represented by the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballads project) and book illustrations. As far as the latter are concerned, bpi1700 has supplemented the British Museum’s collection of title-pages by the addition of some important examples from the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum; a few complete sets of illustrations to books from the same source have also been included, but much remains to be done on this front (see below).

As the project’s title implies, the main criterion for selection has been that a print is both British and was produced before 1700. Both the geographical and the chronological boundaries present certain complications, and although acting as guiding principles to the process of selection, neither has been rigidly applied—indeed, to have done so would have resulted in a number of unfortunate outcomes. Many prints can be dated with some precision, but for others this is not possible. The gathering pace of print production in the latter part of the 17th century and the early part of the 18th has left us with many prints which we cannot be sure were produced before or after 1700; in such cases, and particularly when the print is of special interest, a policy of inclusion has been applied. One justification for this, familiar to historians and other scholars working on the ‘seventeenth century’, is that events do not respect rigid chronological boundaries; hence, a number of prints produced during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), the last of the Stuart monarchs, will be found on the database, particularly where they shed light on the Stuart period more generally. A further reason for including some post-1700 material is that a number of printmakers straddled the1700 divide, and in many such cases it would have been unfortunate to have arbitrarily curtailed their inclusion at 1700. For example, Robert White, an important late 17th-century engraver, died in 1702, and was making prints right up to his death; it would have been highly artificial to omit his output in the last two years of his life. An even more striking example is that of John Smith, the first native English printmaker to gain an international reputation, and therefore of some importance in the overall history of early modern British printmaking. Smith was active from the 1680s to the early 1740s, and it was felt that an inclusive approach was justified in this instance on the grounds that users would appreciate as much of Smith’s output as possible. On the whole bpi1700 has followed the British Museum’s approach to chronological divisions among printmakers: if a printmaker was born before 1670 he is considered to belong to the 17th century; if born after 1670 he is considered to be an 18th-century printmaker.

Geographical boundaries present another set of problems. Even a brief overview of early modern British print history reveals a complex picture: foreign engravers working in England; native British engravers working on the Continent; prints made on the Continent, by both British and foreign engravers, but published in Britain, sometimes specifically intended for the British market. Again, the policy has largely been one of inclusion. One justification for this is that the history of printmaking is not only the story of the printmakers, but is also the story of print publishers, printsellers, and the print trade more generally. A further way in which bpi1700 has been geographically inclusive is in the occasional selection of foreign prints on British subject matter. A good example is the many Dutch prints on such events as the Armada, the Anglo-Dutch wars, the Revolution of 1688, and the Nine Years’ War. This can be justified by the very close political, religious and cultural links between England and the Netherlands in the 16th and 17th centuries, and by one of the purposes of this resource, which is to further our understanding of early modern Britain through the printed image: many British historical events are far better depicted by the more advanced culture of 17th-century Dutch printmaking than they are by contemporary British printmaking.

At the current stage, bpi1700 offers a representative rather than a comprehensive database of early modern British printed images. No physical collection of prints can claim comprehensiveness, and the wide dispersal and rarity of many prints means that a comprehensive digital library would be an extraordinarily difficult undertaking. Its implementation is made more difficult by the state of scholarship on early modern British print history which is less advanced than that on early modern Dutch, Flemish, German and French prints. In addition, users should be aware that book illustrations from the period are very under-represented in the current selection, mainly due to the Herculean task of locating and cataloguing the vast body of material involved; this is a lacuna that is hoped to be filled in the future, and bpi1700 has already made a start on this through the systematic identification of British book illustrations 1604-40. A further lacuna at this stage concerns much of the output of one important printmaker, Wenceslaus Hollar, although this is partly because an existing resource, the Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection at the University of Toronto, goes some way to filling this gap. Nevertheless, bpi1700 offers a large and representative selection of early modern British printed images, and is as inclusive as possible of some of the most interesting types of prints from the period. Hence the corpus provides an excellent introduction to the early modern British printed image as it stands, and should also serve as the basis for an increasingly comprehensive resource on early modern British print history.