THE next lunchtime art talk at York Art Gallery, on February 13, will focus on prints made in Britain in the 18th century after Rembrandt.

This half-hour event will provide a rare opportunity to see some of the most beautiful of all British prints, in particular a number of mezzotints of great richness, and is open to all visitors to the gallery in Exhibition Square without the need to book.

The speaker will be David Alexander, a vice-president of the Friends of York Art Gallery, Honorary Keeper of British Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and one of the organisers of the pioneering exhibition Rembrandt and Eighteenth Century Britain held at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, in the United States.

Mr Alexander points out how it is often forgotten that before the arrival of photography in the 19th century, public knowledge of paintings relied on prints. From 1750, there was a remarkable level of interest among British picture collectors in the pictures painted by Rembrandt, the greatest Dutch painter of the previous century.

Many of his pictures, both portraits and subject pictures such as scenes from the Bible, were brought to Britain, and there also was a great demand for the etchings that he made himself. Very few people were able to see the original pictures, which were in private houses. Instead engravers made prints of them for general sale in print shops.

It so happened that the enthusiasm for Rembrandt coincided with the emergence in London of a group of very skilled mezzotint engravers. Mezzotint did not rely on lines, but on roughness on the copper plate, which enabled the printmaker to achieve subtle tones similar to the appearance of an oil painting.

Between 1750 and 1800, some 100 mezzotints after Rembrandt were made in London. Most were expensive prints, but there were cheap versions of many of them too. The prints were known widely and influenced many British painters of the time, such as William Hogarth.

Some outstanding examples of mezzotints after Rembrandt will be on display on February 13, most notably the mezzotint by James McArdell after Rembrandt's Old Man Reading – then thought to show the painter's mother – after a painting now in the collection of the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth.