Issue Number: 96
The Society of Antiquaries was born out of the Enlightenment spirit of the new Great Britain. They collected a wealth of objects that preserve our nation’s heritage today, says Jenny Uglow
George Cruickshank, ‘The Antiquarian Society’, 1812. Mr Derrick Chivers/Photo © Society of Antiquaries of London/John Hammond
The eighteenth century was the great age of clubs; there were clubs for singing, drinking, gardening and, more seriously, clubs for politicians of all factions, for poets and writers, collectors and philosophers, engineers and astronomers.
Indeed, these informal clubs, which met in coffee houses and taverns and members’ houses, gathering and disseminating information informally, without the heavy-handed intervention of the universities or the state, have often been seen as the beginning of a peculiarly British form of the Enlightenment. Ensuring the swift spread of ideas, they combined sociability with a new notion of ‘public spirit’, holding knowledge in trust for the future. By mid-century, it was enough for Dr Johnson to refer to his group of distinguished friends, including Sir Joshua Reynolds, first President of the Royal Academy, simply as ‘the Club’.
The period also saw an intense fascination with history, whether it be of the creation of the earth or the growth of civilisations. This was a European-wide movement, but in Britain it had a political edge. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and still more after the Act of Union of 1707, which created a new ‘Great Britain’, there were urgent debates about the culture and origins of the new nation. Already, countering the value placed on European and classical culture by devotees of the Grand Tour and members of the aristocratic Society of Dilettanti, particular individuals had laid emphasis on the distinctive history of Britain, from the Celtic Druids to Gothic cathedrals, from monuments such as Stonehenge to the treasures of Tudor princes. Eventually this would combine with a ‘patriotic’ political programme, connected to the idea of ‘Old Albion’.
The Antiquaries were at the heart of this movement. The ground had been laid during the Restoration by men like John Aubrey who asked readers of his description of North Wiltshire in 1670 to imagine ‘the kind of countrie [sic] this was in the time of the Ancient Britons’. In the seventeenth century, papers on antiquities were read at the Royal Society, the great precursor of all the learned societies, founded in 1660. However, by 1707, the year of the new nation’s birth, this interest appears to have declined. To revive these studies, and provide a forum for discussion, on 5 December that year the Anglo-Saxon scholar Humphrey Wanley met up with two friends in the Bear Tavern in London, and proposed a club that ‘would be limited to the subject of antiquities and more particularly to such things as may illustrate and relate to the History of Great Britain’. From this grew the Society of Antiquaries, whose first minutes are on show in the Royal Academy exhibition ‘Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707–2007’. Twenty-three new members flocked to the first formal meeting on New Years Day, 1718, launching a tradition of recording and collecting of Britain’s material culture that still continues today.
Many visitors to the Royal Academy glance to their left as they walk across the courtyard of Burlington House, curious as to what lies behind the solid doors adorned with the gilded title, the ‘Society of Antiquaries’.
The early Antiquaries hunted for clues as to the birth of the nation, looking back to myths lost in the mists of time. Surveying Stonehenge and Avebury, the first Secretary, William Stukeley, was convinced the stone circles had arisen from a Druidical culture that could match that of ancient Rome. However, polite society still favoured classical antiquities to quaint native objects, seeing the Antiquaries as gullible pedants.
Although a move to Somerset House in 1781 signalled that the Society had joined the Establishment, it remained the butt of jokes, which can be seen in Thomas Rowlandson’s print of a stooping figure gawping at a toothy Egyptian mummy, or George Cruikshank’s cartoon of a meeting (above), where no one listens to the new President and the table is piled with a coal skuttle (labelled ‘Ancient Shield’), jars of pickled cabbage and gooseberries (‘Funerial Urns’), a pigswill trough (‘Roman Sarcophagus’) and a chamber pot which masquerades as a ‘Roman Vase’. The Society still has the same President’s Chair that Cruikshank depicted in 1812, the bust of George III – and the same name.
Current Fellows rather revel in their founders’ belief in the value of evidence of all kinds, however insignificant. To the Guest Curator of this exhibition, David Starkey, the Antiquaries ‘catholicity’ has always been their greatest strength. Starkey owed his own introduction to the Society to Hugh Murray Bailey, a key intellectual influence on his life, balancing that of Geoffrey Elton. Whereas Elton was a rigorous documentary historian, viewing political history as divorced from the arts and society, Bailey (who was brought up in Belgium, trilingual and responsible for the restoration of West German antiquities after the War) showed how closely political power was related to and expressed in architecture, painting, literature and the arts.
Starkey believes that the Society of Antiquaries ‘embodies this rich understanding of history as the story of individual human beings, expressed through buildings, objects, writings, art, domestic life, what the French call histoire totale’. This new, ‘human’ way of seeing history, once scorned in academe but now completely accepted, had always been the essence of the Society’s venture. The Antiquaries, Starkey claims, have been ‘universal pioneers, gathering material long before the specialist disciplines arrived’.
Hans Eworth, Mary I, 1554. Society of Antiquaries of London/Photo © Society of Antiquaries of London/John Hammond.
They were the first to collect portraits, long before the National Portrait Gallery was founded, such as the stunning large group of pictures of British monarchs collected over the years by the Reverend Thomas Kerrich, Librarian of Cambridge University in the early nineteenth century. Among these is the haunting study of Mary I by Hans Eworth, 1554 (right), which like so many of the objects here comes with a fascinating story attached. The Society’s communications manager, Jayne Phenton, discovered that the huge pearl suspended from Queen Mary’s pendant was owned centuries later by the film star Elizabeth Taylor, who nearly lost it in a thick, white carpet.
The Antiquaries were also the first to attempt a systematic publication of important documents and records, well in advance of the Public Record Office. In addition, they were the first to collect sculpture, bronzes and other antiquities, years before the British Museum opened. The broad interests and zeal of early Fellows has left the Society with many priceless artefacts, exhibited alongside complementary objects from national and regional museums, such as the contemporary copy of the Magna Carta and the beautifully enamelled Limoges reliquary, designed to hold relics of St Thomas Becket, discovered in Naples and presented to the Antiquaries by Sir William Hamilton in 1801.
Another star is the illuminated Lindsey Psalter, owned by the Abbot of Peterborough in the early thirteenth century, and bequeathed to the Society in 1768. This is one of the few prayer books from the period where we know the owner’s name, so can date it closely: it includes two wonderful full-page miniatures of the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty and is one of the Society’s greatest treasures.
Other items remind us of the work of early excavators, exploring the barrows and tombs of the British Isles. Among the many evocative finds are an amber necklace from Wiltshire; a bronze shield from an Ayrshire bog; and a Roman cavalry parade helmet discovered at Ribchester, Lancashire, in 1796, by a clog-maker’s son playing on waste land. With its elaborate head piece and face mask with human features, the Ribchester Helmet is accompanied by Thomas Underwood’s detailed drawing of 1798 (see pages 60–61), showing it in the exact state in which it was found.
Another resonant exhibit is a drawing that was made when the tomb of Edward I was opened in Westminster Abbey in 1774. It shows the well-preserved, shrouded body with the sceptre and vestments, gilt brooch and a detail of the pearl-encrusted stole. According to the RA’s exhibition catalogue, it was alleged afterwards that Richard Gough, the director of the Society at the time, ‘tried to remove part of a finger and was told to return it to the coffin, the Dean insisting that no remains be taken away.’
The drawings and paintings on display include JMW Turner’s watercolour of the interior of Salisbury Cathedral, as well as his sublime painting of Stonehenge, c. 1827, and Thomas Girtin’s picturesque view of Ely Cathedral. Many of the drawings were modes of research: Carola Hicks, a Fellow and author of a history of the Bayeux Tapestry, points out what a revelation Stothard’s drawings of the tapestry, made in Caen Cathedral (now housed in Bayeux), were to contemporary scholars who had never been able to see it.
Each age values something different: the Romantic era and the Victorian Gothic Revival, for example, brought the medieval world into the limelight. Walter Scott wrote The Border Antiquities of England and Scotland, as well as his novel The Antiquary. Ford Madox Brown threw himself into vivid paintings of medieval life; John Ruskin championed pre-industrial values; William Morris, who was a notable Fellow of the Society, fought for the protection of ancient buildings. He left his manor at Kelmscott to the Society, and his presence can be felt in the exhibition through its display of books from the Kelmscott Press; a beautiful jewellery casket decorated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal for Morris’s wife Jane; and a hand-painted glazed tile illustrating a Chaucerian legend, designed by Edward Burne-Jones.
Pioneers of modern archaeology, such as Pitt Rivers and Mortimer Wheeler, heralded the modern age of the Antiquaries. The Society used to be ‘virtually a gentleman’s club’, with numbers initially limited to 100, but there are now more than 2,500 Fellows from many different fields.
In the 21st century, studying the past is no longer a leisurely amateur pursuit but the basis for a range of skilled professions in archaeology, archives, art history and elsewhere. Fellows, however, are still elected by ballot, with balls made of cork held out in a bowl and then placed by hand in a row of little wooden ballot boxes. Women were not formally admitted until 1921, but since then they have made their mark, providing two presidents: the redoubtable expert on Romanesque art Dame Joan Evans (1893–1977) and Rosemary Cramp, an authority on Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
Planned celebrations for the tercentenary include a ‘Women in the Heritage Day’, involving young researchers and veteran Fellows, such as Beatrice de Cardi, now 93 and still working on excavations in Syria.
If the membership has changed, to use current jargon, ‘the heritage itself has also broadened’. Whereas research used to be limited to ancient stones and parish records, now the industrial and commercial past is equally valued and current Fellows include archaeologists working on the popular television documentary programme Time Team. The Society’s lectures tackle tough contemporary issues: the meeting room was packed when Colonel Matthew Bogdanos of the US Marines spoke on ‘Thieves of Baghdad: The fate of antiquities in present day Iraq’. The Antiquaries have become serious spokesmen on the preservation of ancient monuments, offering a range of expertise, and organising events such as a conference on marine archaeology and a debate on the future of Stonehenge.
This summer the venerable buildings have been swathed in scaffolding. The grand entrance hall, with its gilt-topped pillars, will soon glow anew. However, in many areas the atmosphere is unchanged – the portraits of former presidents parade up the staircase, stretching back to the first bewigged founders.
The library has moved into the digital age, putting its entire catalogue online, but its ravishing room, the beating heart of the Society’s work, still has a timeless calm, with its pillared gallery and high upper tier situated behind a low wrought-iron balustrade. One woman Fellow tells me that ‘you need a head for heights to tackle the top gallery – and I certainly never wear short skirts’. But scholars dizzy from research can retreat upstairs to the Fellows Room and sink into old leather armchairs, high up above the bustling courtyard of Burlington House.
Poised and independent, the Society of Antiquaries preserves the past and looks towards the future. In David Starkey’s words, ‘While the universities are increasingly under pressure, the Antiquaries, as an independent learned Society with no state funding, has a fundamental future role in encouraging truly imaginative research, and this will continue and grow.’
So, far from embodying pedantry or the dead hand of tradition, the Society of Antiquaries is full of life, with a rich and vigorous – and very human – enjoyment of the present. As one Fellow said firmly, ‘Our treasures are unique, but don’t forget to mention that we have the best teas in London, with an absolutely marvellous range of cakes.’