For much of the late 18th and early 19th centuries – the age of Romanticism, as it has come to be known – Germany was a troubled and fractured place. Not yet a nation, but seething with aspirations to become one, its territories had long been a battleground for the great powers of Europe. The Napoleonic invasions of the early 19th century only enhanced many Germans’ sense of their own political impotence, leading Jean Paul Richter to declare that “Providence has given to the French the empire of the land; to the English that of the sea; to the Germans that of the air!” While Germans couldn’t hope for power in the real world, they were born for mastery in the airy vastness of the intellectual universe – the sphere of literature, philosophy, music and art. Richter was right: Germany did indeed experience a great cultural awakening during the Romantic period. But while the writings of Goethe, the philosophy of Kant and the music of Beethoven are globally appreciated, the work created by German visual artists of the time still remains undervalued outside Germany itself. A new exhibition in the British Museum’s Prints and Drawings department focuses on one particularly powerful strand of German Romantic art. Subtitled Landscape, Heroes and Folktales, it is a broad-ranging survey of graphic art in Germany from the end of the 18th century to the mid-1860s. Remarkably, it is drawn entirely from the holdings of an extremely discerning English private collector, Charles Booth-Clibborn. On this showing, if his collection could be kept together and perhaps, one day, found a permanent home here, it would transform the representation of German art in Great Britain. The exhibition opens with a pristine set of engravings after the Tageszeiten, or “Times of Day”, by the short-lived but brilliant Philipp Otto Runge. Created during the darkest years of the Napoleonic invasions, Runge’s images – intended as designs for a never-completed cycle of secular stained-glass windows – are subtly melancholic dreams of national rebirth and renewal. Fair-faced children are accompanied by maternal goddesses in designs that hark back to the world of Germany’s Gothic cathedrals. Amid festoons of roses and lilies, these idealised infants and mothers rise into an imagined heaven of geometrical purity – a place at once spectrally perfect and impossibly fecund, teeming with vast sheaves of corn and crowned by daisy chains of blossom. German Romantic art is an art of dreaming, of troubled escapism – driven, above all, by the desire to escape from a disenchanted present. The Nazarenes, a self-professed brotherhood of artists, anticipated the English Pre-Raphaelites’ flight to the Middle Ages by a generation. The drawings and prints created by their circle include a series of trembling, delicate homages to the ghosts of Flemish and Italian Old Masters. Each consists of an enlarged detail of a Botticelli or Hans Memling, meticulously copied, purified to black and white, held up to the gaze like a mysterious relic from an age of vanished purity. The Nazarenes’ portraits are yet more striking: a parade of solemn, frighteningly intent young men full of yearning for some better, other place. Looking back to the past was one way to escape. Another was to retreat to nature, to find solace, or something less easily definable. Among the most startling images here are some hypnotising studies of animal faces by Goethe’s friend Wilhelm Tischbein, who believed that human nature was a compound of that of beasts, and observed his feral subjects – lynx, fox, dog – with a correspondingly paranoid attention to detail. But for many, the greatest discovery here will be the surreally strange, intensely powerful studies of nature by Carl Wilhelm Kolbe. Kolbe plunges the eye into vertiginous screens of foliage, spectacularly sculptural blasted trees and writhing, threateningly enlarged clumps of wild vegetation. It is hard to say if these are dreams of oneness with nature or fantasies of being consumed by it. Images of pulsing microcosm and universal energy, uneasy but defiant, they proclaim a power far greater than the power of man.