Humfrey Wanley

Humfrey Wanley, 1711
Thomas Hill (c. 1661-1734?)
Oil on canvas
122 x 102 (cm)
Society of Antiquaries of London

Scharf 1865, no. 51, pp. 44-5; Evans 1956, pp. 33-8; Wright and Wright 1966; Keynes 1996; London 2007, no. 27
full bibliography (pdf)
 Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) was one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1707. He took the minutes at their first meetings and on 12 December 1707 recorded that: 'Agreed that the Business of this Society shall be limited to the subject of Antiquities; and more particularly, to such things as may Illustrate and Relate to the History of Great Britain.'

Wanley was a pioneer in the study of palaeography and Anglo-Saxon. He advised Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford, on the purchase of books and manuscripts for his library and later became his librarian. In this capacity Wanley would have met and dealt with John Bagford, a book dealer and another founding member of the Society.

This portrait shows Wanley seated at a desk surrounded by items of antiquarian interest. In particular he holds open a book showing a cruciform text in Greek from St Matthew's Gospel. It was originally identified as the Covel Gospel (BL MS HARLEY 5598), a treasured manuscript from the library of Dr John Covel, Master of Christ's College, Cambridge. Wanley had just received promise of the library's sale to Robert Harley. However, the book is now recognised as Wanley's own facsimile of the work in his Book of Specimens, a skilled compilation of copied scripts from ancient manuscripts.

The portrait was commissioned by Wanley himself and was probably intended as a gesture of goodwill to his employers. It was purchased at the sale of the Harley collection and later presented to the Society by George Vertue in 1755.