Society of Antiquarians of London
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The Art of Recording

In an age without photography, accurate drawings were essential for identification and comparison. Artists, among them William Blake, were commissioned by Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries to record historic buildings, monuments and objects. Models were made of prehistoric sites and impressions made of medieval seals and even of the Bayeux Tapestry. Accurate depiction was prized above creative composition, and the Society employed its own draughtsmen to ensure that the most exacting standards were met, creating a distinctive vision of British antiquity. This long tradition of precise recording and reconstruction continues to the present day both in print illustration and in computer applications.

(left) Jacob Schnebbelie (1760-1792), Waltham Cross from the Swans Inn Looking towards London, 1789 , Watercolour with pen and ink on wire-laid paper

Essay: Art of Recording (pdf)

The paintings on Sebert's monument in Westminster Abbey were revealed in 1775 and identified as representing the abbey's legendary founder and Henry III; it is now thought that the identification of Henry III is unlikely. These remarkable survivals from the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) were published by the Society in 1780. The drawings have been attributed to the artist and poet William Blake, who was then apprenticed to the Society's engraver, James Basire.

King Sebert and King Henry III
Model of a passage-grave from Jersey

One of the earliest surviving models of a British ancient monument, this replica accurately depicts the neolithic passage-grave found at Mont St Helier in 1785. The stones were presented to the retiring Governor of Jersey, General Conway, and shipped to his estate at Henley, where they remain. The Society's Council refused to visit them there because the monument had been moved from its original position.

This drawing shows one of the finest examples of a cavalry parade helmet from Roman Britain and would have been worn at a sporting event. It was discovered accidentally in 1796 by a child playing at Ribchester, Lancashire. The drawing shows the helmet 'as found', showing the results of corrosion; it was made about the time the helmet, now in the British Museum, was exhibited to the Society.

Drawing of the Ribchester helmet
Chamber Tomb of Pentre Ifan near Newport, Pembrokeshire

Richard Tongue advertised himself as 'a painter and modeller of megaliths', an unusual specialism for his day. He believed his work would raise awareness of ancient monuments and thus encourage their preservation. The Pentre Ifan still stands as the largest neolithic burial chamber in Wales.

The festivities which took place in June 1520 near Calais, when Henry VIII met the French king, François I, are depicted in an immense painting now at Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII appears three times. The Society published an engraving of the painting in 1775 as the first in a series of large prints of scenes from British history. The copperplate took two years to prepare. For printing, the image required the largest sheet of handmade paper that had been made up to then, known afterwards as 'Antiquarian' size.

The Field of Cloth of Gold
The Field of Cloth of Gold

The festivities which took place in June 1520 near Calais, when Henry VIII met the French king, François I, are depicted in an immense painting now at Hampton Court Palace. Henry VIII appears three times. The Society published an engraving of the painting in 1775 as the first in a series of large prints of scenes from British history. The copperplate took two years to prepare. For printing, the image required the largest sheet of handmade paper that had been made up to then, known afterwards as 'Antiquarian' size.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a unique representation of the events surrounding William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Nearly 70 metres long, the tapestry was made shortly after the battle. In 1816 the Society commissioned Charles Stothard to copy the entire work. The drawings from his initial visit to France were engraved and he returned to Bayeux with the engravings and hand-coloured them on site.

'William the Conqueror at Hastings'
'William is told that Harold is near'

The Society published Charles Stothard's drawings of the Bayeux Tapestry between 1821 and 1823. This was the first time that a complete colour reproduction of the tapestry had been made available to the public. This image is a close up of the scene where William receives intelligence of Harold's approach. The detail shows individual stitches of the Tapestry.

This is a plaster cast of the same scene of William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry. The cast is one of a few made by Charles Stothard while he was in France copying the tapestry for the Society. It provides a three-dimensional reproduction of the technique and texture of the embroidery, unaffected by interpretation.

'William the Conqueror'
Archaeological reconstruction drawings

Alan Sorrell was a trained artist best known for his archaeological and historical reconstructions. In the 1950s, he drew a significant set of Stonehenge studies that illustrated the monument's phases of construction as they were then understood. His sketches and diagrams were used in an official guide which was published in 1959. He later illustrated school and popular history books, giving his work a broad appeal.

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Bringing Truth to Light

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Society embarked on several major projects to publish large copperplate engravings of architectural illustrations. These brought its recording work to a wider audience and were highly influential in developing public understanding of historic architecture and ornament. The lavishly-decorated medieval interiors of the Palace of Westminster and the Renaissance murals at Cowdray House, Sussex, were recorded in detail. Both buildings were later destroyed by fire and the Society’s engravings survive as a rare record of these vanished treasures.

(left) Samuel Hieronymous Grimm (c.1733-1794), Coronation Procession of Edward VI, 1785, Watercolour

Essay: Bringing Truth to Light (pdf)

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Rescuing the Past

Through the growing national network of antiquaries, new discoveries were regularly presented at Society meetings. Gold or silver artefacts were frequently melted down by finders for their scrap value or have since been lost or damaged, and the Society’s drawings now often form the only evidence for their existence.

(left) Richard Smirke (1778-1815), Drawing of a Viking gold armlet from Ireland, c.1812-13, Pen, ink and wash on paper

Essay: Lost and Found (pdf)

This life-size drawing is the most detailed record of a silver-gilt Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl found in the River Witham in Lincolnshire in 1816. The bowl has been dated to about 800 AD and may have been used for religious or ceremonial purposes. The bowl, last seen in public at an exhibition in Leeds in 1868, has since disappeared.

Drawing of an Anglo-Saxon silver hanging bowl
Drawing of the ring of Mary, Queen of Scots

This elaborate gold and enamel ring belonged to Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587). It bears the emblem of Lord Darnley, Mary's second husband. The drawing was given to the Society in 1810 by the 3rd Earl of Mansfield, to whose family the ring had allegedly been given. The drawing is the only record of the ring, which is now missing.

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From Antiquaries to Archaeologists

The Victorian age saw dramatic changes in the way the past was studied and understood. Major discoveries in geology and natural history, demonstrated the depth of time and enabled a system of relative dating. The introduction of stratigraphic principles revealed a much earlier prehistory for humankind than had previously been envisaged. This, in turn, led to the forging of archaeology as a modern scientific discipline.

(left) Photograph of Mortimer Wheeler’s Box grid System at Maiden Castle, 1934-37

Essay: Birth of Modern Archaeology (pdf)

This handaxe was discovered in 1797 with other worked flint tools at a brickfield in Hoxne, Suffolk. They were identified as man-made by John Frere, a Norfolk landowner and antiquary. Frere realised the importance of the flints as being 'evidently weapons of war, fabricated and used by people who had not the use of metals' but coming from 'a very remote period indeed'.

Pointed handaxe from Hoxne, Suffolk
Drawing of pointed handaxe from Hoxne, Suffolk

John Frere communicated his discovery of the Hoxne flints to the Society in a letter. His report was then published alongside this drawing, commissioned by the Society from the geologist and draughtsman Thomas Underwood. Frere was among the first to acknowledge that such handaxes were man-made and not 'meteorites' or 'thunderbolts from the gods' as was once thought.

Interest in archaeology on television has grown enormously since the pioneering enthusiasm of the BBC in 1952. Over fifty years later, archaeology still features in primetime broadcasting with many of the Society's Fellowship playing frontline roles in the development of these programmes. This exhibit shows the development of style and approach to presenting the past on the small screen.

Archaeology on Television
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