Stukeley’s belief that ‘without drawing and designing the study of antiquities … is lame and imperfect’ would provide the focus for one of the Society’s main activities. The building up of a body of drawings and their dissemination through the engraved print allowed systematic comparison of the objects discussed at meetings, or preserved records of monuments and buildings under threat. Many members were competent draughtsmen, but it was recognised that the skill needed to record accurately the appearance of artefacts or buildings depended on professional training, and from the 1780s the Society employed suitably qualified artists.
The majority of engravings were issued in the series Vetusta Monumenta (Ancient Monuments), which ran intermittently from 1718 to 1906. The distinguished engraver George Vertue was an early member and was responsible for most engravings up to his death in 1756. Each member of the Society received a free copy. From 1770 the Society began to publish its journal, the Archaeologia. The first volume, a collection of previous papers presented at the meetings, covered a wide range of topics from the Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval and Elizabethan periods.
The foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and the belief of its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in the superiority of history painting led to the popularity of images depicting important moments in British history, or scenes drawn from writers like Shakespeare or Milton. Keen to play their part in this growing sense of national identity, the Society began, in 1775, to issue engravings based on earlier paintings. By concentrating on the Tudor period and Henry VIII’s difficult relations with France they reflected current hostility between the two countries. Five of these engravings were based on wall paintings at Cowdray House, destroyed by fire in 1793.
Samuel Hieronymus Grimm’s watercolour of the Cowdray House mural depicting the Procession of Edward VI on the day before his coronation was commissioned by the Society so that an engraving could be made from it. The nine-year old Edward can be seen in the centre of the picture under a golden canopy. The four-hour procession from the Tower of London to the Palace of Westminster allowed the heir apparent to meet his people, and along the way there were pageants and other entertainment. The destruction of the original mural meant that the watercolour and subsequent engraving provided an important record of the appearance of the city at a particular moment in its history.
The large size of these engravings and their consequent cost limited the number of historical prints, a problem that would also affect the Society’s next series, devoted to the Gothic Cathedrals. Concern about the decay of many religious buildings of the medieval period and worries about the stylistic compatibility of some restoration led the Society to commission John Carter to provide records of selected buildings. Between 1794 and 1798 he worked at Exeter, Bath, Wells, Durham and Gloucester, producing drawings of astonishing accuracy and understanding. His passionate concern for the Gothic style was expressed through vitriolic attacks on architects whose restoration he felt was destructive, unnecessary or inappropriate.
Carter had begun work on Wells Cathedral in 1794, but the project was put aside while drawings of other buildings were engraved. When the time to complete the drawings for Wells Cathedral in 1806, he had fallen out with the Society because of his continued attacks on other architects, but it was accepted that only Carter could understand his initial plans and sketches. The cross section from east to west is extremely accurate and still used by Cathedral staff today. Prick holes show Carter’s use of compass and dividers to ensure precision. For the connoisseur, a drawing like this was seen to be completely lacking in the spontaneous exercise of the imagination or a search for the ideal, but nevertheless, it has its own aesthetic qualities.
Antiquarians were also responsible for commissioning a new generation of Romantic artists to portray the medieval buildings they were so fond of.
This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.