The founding of the British Museum was undoubtedly one of the great cultural achievements 18th century England. It was the world’s first recognisably modern museum; a state-owned institution that was open to all, collecting objects drawn from every major branch of the arts and sciences. The Museum’s collection was initially based upon the 71,000 antiquities and other items that had been left to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane on his death in 1753. The precedent set by Sloane was eventually followed by other wealthy Georgian collectors, including King George II who donated a portion of his library to the Museum in 1757, and the collection rapidly grew to include countless valuable objects, manuscripts and works of art.
The Museum’s collection of prints was initially a rather modest affair, consisting of a small quantity of engravings after the Old Masters which had belonged to Sir Hans Sloane. However the death of the print collector Reverend C.M. Cracherode in 1799 resulted in the Museum inheriting over 10,000 16th and 17th engravings. The size of the newly acquired collection was such that the trustees were required to clear a whole gallery in order to house it and to appoint the Reverend William Beloe to act as the British Museum’s first curator of prints and drawings.
It is at this point that the caricaturist Robert Dighton enters the story. Dighton was an enthusiastic collector of old master prints and had been visiting the Museum on a regular basis since the mid-1790s. He was introduced to Beloe shortly after the Print Room opened in 1800 and seems to have gone to great lengths to strike up a friendship with the curator, even going so far as to present the good Reverend with several of his own prints and watercolours as gifts. By 1804 the two men had become firm friends and Beloe was perfectly happy to allow the caricaturist to turn up at the Print Room whenever he felt like it and peruse the collections without supervision. Unbeknownst to Beloe however, Dighton had begun using these social calls as an opportunity to steal rare prints. For a period of about eighteen months, from 1804 until 1806 Dighton would regularly take a folio containing his own draws into the Print Room and then use this to smuggle out prints he had taken from the collection.
The crime was eventually detected in 1806 when Dighton sold a stolen Rembrandt to the printseller Samuel Woodburn of St Martin’s Lane. Woodburn showed the print to a friend, who declared it a forgery and the two men immediately headed off to the British Museum to settle the argument by comparing it with the original. When they arrived at the Print Room and found the original copy missing, they immediately alerted a senior member of the Museum’s staff. Within days rumours of the thefts were circulating in the press and an embarrassed board of trustees was forced to hastily convene a committee of inquiry to look into the matter. Woodburn was called to appear before the committee on 21st June 1806 and confirmed that, not only had he purchased the stolen Rembrant from Dighton earlier that month, he had a number of other prints in his collection which he suspected had been lifted from the British Museum by the light-fingered caricaturist.
With several other printsellers lining up to confirm that Dighton had sold them suspect prints and Museum staff also coming forward to testify that Beloe had been only too happy to allow his friend to have free-reign over the Print Room’s collection, it was only a matter of time before the caricaturist’s guilt was established. At the end of June 1806 Dighton panicked, came forward, confessed to the thefts and offered to cut a deal – He would return all the stolen prints he still had in his possession and help the Museum track down the dozens of items he had sold, as long as the trustees agreed to drop their plans to prosecute him for the thefts.
Dighton got lucky. The trustees had to strike a deal because they had no other means of recovering the missing prints. Beloe had never got around to cataloging the collection and therefore only Dighton knew precisely which items were missing and where they had gone. He did not escape scot-free though, word of the scandal soon leaked out and the damage it did to his reputation was such that he was forced to give up all hope of finding work as an artist in London for years to come. Robert Dighton eventually left the capital in late 1806 and spent a number of years travelling around the Home Counties trying to find work as a jobbing artist and engraver. It is to be hoped that his former friend’s downfall provided some small crumbs of comfort to William Beloe, who was left to bear the full force of the trustees anger and instantly dismissed from his post on the grounds of gross negligence. As far as we know neither man ever set eyes on the other again.