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A quirky, artistic trip through the alphabet

`A TO Z of the Prints and Drawings Collection'' - an artistic walk through the alphabet - is an absorbing, kaleidoscopic, and entertaining exhibition at the British Museum through May 25. ``A'' stands for (among other things) amateurs, antiquities, and aviation. ``B'' is for bookplates and broadsheets - and also for naturalist Sir Joseph Banks and wood-engraver Thomas Bewick. ``C'' includes circus and caricature and color-printing and Captain Cook, not to mention costume and street cries.

And ``Z''? Well, ``Z'' is for zoology and natural history, which includes an elephant (drawn by Rembrandt), a mouse with a piece of cheese (painted by John Constable) and crocodiles on the Ganges (as observed by a certain William Simpson using watercolors and bodycolors in 1875).

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Apparently there are no zebras - but you can't have everything, even if you are the British Museum.

The museum's department of prints and drawings is an extraordinary resource, but one that even the expert curatorial staff can not always find its way through. Small wonder since the collection contains more than two million pieces from the 14th century to the present, which, geographically speaking, cover Europe and parts of the world ``culturally associated with it'' - little places like America and Australia.

No single catalog of the entire collection has been compiled, but the department has just published a book designed to be a working tool for researchers. This is a practical ``user's guide,'' though it does not claim to answer all demands. Because catalogs that list items under artists', designers', and engravers' names already exist, what is offered here is a topic index. This is arranged alphabetically and is clearly the inspiration for the current exhibition.

A collection driven by curiosity

Both exhibition and book thus rather pleasantly (as well as informatively) skip around the collection, indicating something of its scope and not a little of its occasional quirkiness. It has not been a collection built up in answer to a policy. It has been ``moulded ... by gift and bequest'' as well as by the taste of its successive staffs. As with any museum collection worth its salt, curiosity is a driving motivation, and the index and exhibition recognize this. Many of the subjects in the exhibition were chosen because they are the ones visitors most frequently ask questions about.

Under ``amateurs'' there are, for example, etchings by Queen Victoria and Louis XIV. There is an ebullient self-caricature by the great opera singer Caruso. And listed in the index, though not in the exhibition, is a wartime sketch called ``View from my Tent, 3 July 1944'' by an artist called Dierek van den Bogaerde - more usually known as Dirk Bogarde, the actor.

It's the sort of show in which every visitor chooses favorites - and then adds some more. Among several colored drawings of birds by Bewick, one of a bullfinch particularly caught my eye. So did the delightful selection of bookplates. A small collection of old Christmas and Valentine cards are amusingly lacy and sentimental.

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As you move from this sort of ephemera to superb old master drawings - a fine ``Head of an Elderly Man'' by Lorenzo di Credi, or one of Watteau's shimmering red chalk studies of ``A Seated Woman Seen from Behind'' - you get some hint of the range of the collection.

A real Samuel Palmer, and a fake

Under ``F'' for ``forgeries'' there is an opportunity to relish the small, passionate ``Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star'' from the brief visionary period of that intense 19th century English artist Samuel Palmer. This work is not a forgery, but next to it in the show is what the label charitably calls ``a pastiche in the style of Samuel Palmer'' by a forger called Tom Keating who made a dubious name for himself in the 1970s. Its mindless adaptation of Palmer's style, without his heart, is plain for all to see.

Under ``I'' for ``illustrations to authors'' we have George Cruikshank's etchings illustrating ``Puss in Boots'' (1864). They show with great good humor how Tom Puss, by persuading an ogre to transform himself from first an elephant and then a lion into a mouse, reduces him at last to manageable vulnerability. (The best treatment for ogres.)

An artist who is given a special heading to himself is the 16th-century botanical painter Jacques Le Moyne De Morgues. His stunning watercolor depictions of the common fig, of an apple with an orange-tip butterfly, and of the native British wild daffodil are classics. They are finished and accurate, and as fresh and sensitive as D"urer's flower paintings.

The show is, all told, a procession of surprises, old favorites, and curiosities. Everything that a museum collection should be.

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