The Reception of a New Member in the Society of Antiquarians

The Reception of a New Member in the Society of Antiquarians, 1782
Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827)
Pen and ink and watercolour over pencil
23.5 x 37.4 (cm)
Society of Antiquaries of London

Pfungst 1911-12, p. 6; Opp? 1923, p. 9, pl. 14; London 1934, no. 798, pl. 162; Bury 1949, p. 82, pl. 18; Bruce-Mitford 1951, p. 71, pl. 22; Evans 1956, p. 180, pl. 19; London 2007, no. 37
full bibliography (pdf)
 Rowlandson's watercolour shows Dr Jeremiah Milles, the small and corpulent Dean of Exeter, President of the Society from 1769 to 1784, admitting a new member to the Society soon after the move into Somerset House. Although he makes little attempt to record the meeting room accurately, Rowlandson does capture the President's likeness. Dean Milles had suffered a stroke in 1780 that left him without the use of his right arm. He therefore shook hands with his left. In the picture it is the new member who appears to adopt the curious practice of shaking hands with his left hand, while Milles uses his right; in a print this arrangement of hands would be reversed; Rowlandson may have planned an eventual engraving. The new member may also be intended as a portrait of a real person, although he remains unidentified. Tall, aristocratic and something of a dandy with his blue-striped coat and newfangled umbrella, he stands out from Rowlandson's more conventional portrayal of the other antiquaries, who are unlikely to represent more than types.

Although not an Academician, Rowlandson was well connected with the RA and would have had access to its rooms. A connecting door between the rooms occupied by the Society of Antiquaries in Somerset House and those of the Academy made it perfectly possible that the artist had glimpsed the Society's activities. He had perhaps a particular interest. At the end of 1781 Dean Milles had been gullible enough to sponsor a second edition of the poems of Thomas Rowley, the entirely fictitious fifteenth-century poet of Thomas Chatterton's celebrated deception. Thomas Rowlandson - 'Rowly' to his friends - may well have taken considerable teasing during the controversy through the coincidence of the shared names; he must have found Dean Milles, Thomas Rowley's champion, something of a curiosity.