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Mists of Time
Before the eighteenth century people in Britain had a limited perception of the past and the depth of time, and were strongly influenced by pagan or Christian beliefs and ancestral myth. Calculations based on the Bible suggested that human activity had been confined to a few thousand years. There was little sense of distinguishing periods in the past and little expertise in identifying and explaining its material remains. The first antiquaries began to challenge previously held views of Britain’s past. Concerned by the destruction of antiquities caused by the dissolution of the monasteries and by the Civil War, they studied and mapped monuments in the landscape, as well as manuscript sources relating to family property rights, heraldry and genealogy. They were determined not to be ‘strangers in their own country’.
(left) Michael Drayton (1563-1631), Frontispiece from Poly-Olbion, 1613, Printed book
Essay: Mists of Time (pdf)
Essay: Earliest Antiquaries (pdf)
This rare surviving genealogical roll was compiled to chart the descent of Henry VI (1422-1471) from Adam and Eve. It was later extended to the reign of Charles II at the Restoration. The first section illustrates Bible stories including The Flood and The Nativity. Rolls such as these illustrate the desire to be associated with legendary and documented figures of the remote past but are notoriously imaginative.
James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, dated the history of the world using a system based on the Old Testament. This was accepted as definitive in Britain and used well into the nineteenth century. His calculation that the Creation took place in 4004 BC seriously affected antiquarian attempts to form a credible idea of the prehistoric past.
The title Poly-Olbion translates from the Greek to mean 'the Variety of Britain'. The work is a poem celebrating the beauty of the land with both historical and legendary scenes. It resembles William Camden's Britannia by following the course of the rivers in each county, but is illustrated with fanciful maps.
William Camden was the father of antiquarian studies in Britain. He first published Britannia in Latin in 1586. It is the first thorough account of Roman Britain and also discusses the peoples of Britain before and immediately after the Romans. Each new edition incorporated much additional material. That of 1610, the first English translation, reached a wider audience and inspired many later county surveys.
William Dugdale was one of the greatest of the seventeenth-century antiquaries. Like many of his fellows, he was very interested in heraldry and genealogy. This work is the product of a group of men who set out to record medieval and sixteenth-century coats of arms. These are pages from a roll originally compiled about 1300, known as Charles's Roll. It illustrated almost five hundred shields of those entitled to bear arms.
Edward Dering recorded the church monuments and inscriptions of his home county, Kent. His accurate drawings are among the earliest of their type. Dering was rightly concerned about these monuments; many were destroyed in the Civil War which began in 1642. These pages show memorial brasses from St Mary's Church, Ashford, which have suffered considerable losses since.
The idea of Britain as a nation was promoted following the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. The Hanoverian succession was accompanied by a growing curiosity about, and a greater appreciation of, Britain’s history. On 5 December 1707 Humfrey Wanley, John Talman and John Bagford, brought together by their common interest in British antiquity, met in a London tavern. By 1718 this informal group had grown in number, and the Society of Antiquaries of London was established with the aim of encouraging ‘the ingenious and curious’ in the field of ‘Bryttish antiquitys’. A Royal Charter was granted in 1751 enabling members to call themselves Fellows, and further status came with the Society’s move to new premises in Somerset House in 1781, which were shared with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society. The Society of Antiquaries of London became increasingly fashionable, attracting members of the aristocracy to its Fellowship.
(left) Thomas Rowlandson (1757-1827), An Antiquarian, 1789, Hand-coloured etching
Essay: Foundation and Fellowship (pdf)
Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) was one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries of London. They met in a London tavern on 5 December 1707 and agreed to meet regularly to discuss matters relating to British history. Wanley was a pioneer in the study of palaeography and Anglo-Saxon. This portrait shows him holding open his Book of Specimens in which he has copied a page from an early Greek Gospel; the text is in the shape of a cross.
George Vertue (1684-1756) is shown in informal clothes working on a copper plate. A draughtsman noted for his exactness, Vertue was the Society's official engraver for nearly forty years. He was also celebrated as an art historian, and his notebooks on the history of British art have remained a major source of information for scholars. His widow presented the portrait to the Society in 1773.
Probably acquired in 1784, this ballot box is an early example of those still in use today at Society elections, although postal and on-line voting are also used. The circular opening of the box enables a voter to insert a hand and drop a cork ball into either the yea or no partition. Failure to be elected is known as being 'blackballed'.
Found at St Leonard's Hill, Windsor, in 1717, and given to the Society by Sir Hans Sloane, this lamp was originally thought to be Roman. Now known to be medieval, it was designed to be suspended and is probably Jewish in origin. The lamp was adopted by the Society as its emblem, where it's often accompanied by an inscription translated as 'not to be extinguished'.
Spratt was a surgeon best known for his illustrations of botanical and medical books. He produced an extensive series of composite caricatures in the nineteenth century including lithographs of 'The Botanist' and 'The Connoisseur'. This figure of an antiquary is made up of illustrations taken from contemporary books to show their diverse interests.
George Cruikshank's satirical print of an imaginary meeting of the Society was published in the 1 June 1812 issue of the radical monthly magazine The Scourge (1811-16). Although a caricature, Cruikshank's print is one of the earliest images of a Society meeting. The room at Somerset House, now used by the Courtauld Institute of Art, is accurately depicted.
Thomas Rowlandson's watercolour shows Dr Jeremiah Milles (President, 1769-84) in the centre, admitting a new member soon after the Society's move into Somerset House. After suffering a stroke in 1780 which denied him the use of his right arm, Milles shook hands with his left. Rowlandson may have planned an eventual engraving, because in the picture this arrangement of hands has been reversed.
Introduction | The Discovery of Britain
Collecting for Britain | The Art of Recording
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