Like so many archaeological stories, the history of the Society of Antiquaries of London began in a pub. The hostelry in question was the Bear Tavern in the Strand, the year was 1707, and John Talman, John Bagford, and Humfrey Wanley had met up to share not only a few drinks, but also their love of all things ancient. This was not a casual gathering, however: that evening the three friends resolved that they would hold a similar meeting every Friday evening ‘upon the pain of forfeiture of sixpence’. Their newly formed society would focus on ‘the study of Antiquities’, especially those relating to Britain – an unusual choice at a time when the Classical world was a much more fashionable field.
Early assemblies floated around various taverns, functioning like a scholarly ‘show and tell’ with members bringing objects of interest and discussing pet theories. The fledgling fellowship almost foundered, however, when a favourite haunt, the Young Devil on Fleet Street, went bankrupt. Fortunately, by 1717 the group had found a new meeting place nearby at the Mitre, and from there the Society flourished. Within a year, they were taking meticulous minutes of each meeting, and eagerly commissioning etchings, publishing prints, and purchasing useful books (as well as a chest that the itinerant association used to carry them around). Proceedings became even more formalised in 1735, with the introduction of presidential regalia including a ceremonial mace, but the Antiquaries remained without a proper home – even in 1753, two years after George III had granted the Society a Royal Charter, it was renting space in the former Robin’s Coffee House in Chancery Lane.
This all changed in 1776, when the Society was given a permanent suite of rooms in the Neoclassical grandeur of Somerset House. There, the Antiquaries were able to start amassing collections in earnest, and to host larger meetings. Indeed, in 1802 the Rosetta Stone – discovered in Egypt only three years earlier – was displayed at Somerset House ahead of its deposition at the British Museum, during which time the Antiquaries took plaster casts of its inscription and circulated prints of the tripartite text to help those striving to translate it.
After almost a century, though, the Society was on the move once more. An expansion of the Civil Service squeezed the Antiquaries out of Somerset House in 1874 – but as a consolation they were given bespoke apartments at Burlington House, just over a mile away in Piccadilly, where they remain today.
Expanding the Antiquaries
The first Burlington House meeting was held in 1875, followed by a series of other ‘firsts’ as the Society gained a more established footing: the Antiquaries held their first archaeological conference in 1888, and issued their first research grant (£50 to support excavations at Silchester in Hampshire) the following year; the Society has since sponsored archaeological work at many other sites at home and abroad, from Stonehenge to Sutton Hoo. One milestone came late in the Society’s history, however: it was not until 1920 that women were admitted as Fellows, and it would be longer still before the Antiquaries gained their first female president (Dame Joan Evans, a historian of British and French art) in 1959.
Now the Society is looking to expand its access further by launching a new affiliate membership and making its collections more open to the public. The Antiquaries are keen to dispel preconceptions of being an elitist private members’ club, I was told during a recent visit to Burlington House; while one of the founders, John Talman, was a gentleman, collecting art and antiquities during tours of Italy, John Bagford was a shoemaker and book trader, and Humfrey Wanley had started out as an apprentice draper who spent his free time studying old books, and later became a librarian. ‘Their meetings were open to anyone interested in history, and we want to encourage the same spirit today,’ Communications and Events Manager Annabel Harrison said.
Affiliate members enjoy free entry to Burlington House and discounted admission to the Society’s exhibitions and to Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’ Cotswold home that was left to the Antiquaries in 1962. They are also invited to ordinary meetings and lectures (nowadays, held on Thursdays), can use the Society’s library and borrow up to four books and, by arrangement, can access museum collections where required for research (see ‘Further information’ on p.54 for more details).
The Society’s holdings have come a long way from the original chest of books that was carted from pub to pub in their nomadic early years. Today, Burlington House boasts a library of 130,000 books and manuscripts, ranging from a 12th-century copy of the Domesday Book and three copies of Magna Carta to the first colour reproduction drawing of the Bayeux Tapestry and unique documents relating to Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The Society also maintains an unbroken run of minute books from 1718 onwards, offering vivid insights not only into its own history, but also into the evolution of antiquarian thought. ‘Often, we have a minute-book entry about an object, a drawing of it, the artefact itself, and an article published about it, all within our collections,’ said Dunia Maria Garcia-Ontiveros, the Society’s Head of Library and Museum Collections.
Together with 13,000 brass rubbings, 45,000 book plates, and 3,000 current and historic journal titles, another key part of the library’s contents is its 20,000 prints and drawings. From its earliest days, the Society commissioned artists (and, later, photographers) to document buildings, monuments, and sites of archaeological importance – including a young William Blake, who drew royal tombs in Westminster Abbey while apprenticed to the Society’s engraver. Other images represent vital records of long-lost treasures, such as the famous depiction of the Tudor flagship Mary Rose that was originally included in a mural at Cowdray House in West Sussex. It is only known to us today because the wall paintings were recorded for the Society by the wonderfully named Samuel Hieronymous Grimm in 1785; eight years later, the house and its murals burned down.
Founded decades before the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery opened their doors, the Society also functioned as a repository for the personal collections of its Fellows, today holding more than 45,000 objects. As these items reflect the interests of the Society’s members rather than being designed as a coherent museum for public view, they are an incredibly eclectic mix, ranging from coins and roof bosses to pilgrim badges and wax seals, as well as a number of ‘Billys and Charleys’ – lead figurines and medallions produced in the second half of the 19th century and named after William Smith and Charles Eaton, notorious forgers of medieval antiquities. Particularly historically significant are a series of 16th-century royal portraits that include one of the earliest known paintings of Richard III; another of the same monarch which had been altered to give him an exaggerated hunched shoulder and a gnarled hand; and the first portrait of Mary I as Queen. There are also 2,000 prehistoric artefacts, from stone hand-axes to a bronze shield that was presented to the Society at a meeting in 1791. It had been found a few years earlier in a peat bog near Beith in Ayrshire where, unusually, it had been placed vertically on its side to form a ring with five or six others. This is the sole survivor of the group, whose existence is known only from the Society’s minute books.
‘We have a wart…’
Inside Burlington House’s small museum room, many artefacts are still displayed in dark wooden cases brought from Somerset House, and discoveries within these are still ongoing. While exploring a drawer, the collections team recently found more than 3,000 intricately detailed wooden printing blocks that had been used to illustrate the Society’s early publications. (The Society has launched an ‘adopt a block’ sponsorship initiative to help fund their research and cataloguing – see http://www.sal.org.uk/collections/adopt-printing-block).
Possibly the most potent evidence of how diverse the Society’s collections are, though, came in the form of a small plastic box that was proudly placed in front of me with the words ‘We have a wart’. Modern handwriting on the lid notes that the blemish had been ‘removed from the hand of William Green [in] Upper Aveley’, and that it came from the Prattinton Collection – amassed by the eponymous antiquarian whose prolific, if eccentric, collecting habits left the Society with a box of curiosities ranging from bird bones and shells to relics, books, drawings, and maps.
Perhaps the most significant object held by the museum, though, is a small oil lamp that was given to the Society in 1736 by Sir Hans Sloane (a physician and collector who later helped to found the British Museum). It had been discovered in 1717 at St Leonard’s Hill, Windsor, and was assumed to be a Roman table lamp; the Antiquaries adopted it as their own symbol, ‘the lamp of knowledge’. More recent research has shed new light on the artefact’s history, however: it is now thought to be medieval in date, possibly of Jewish origin, and rather than standing on a surface it was designed to hang from chains. As a demonstration of how ideas can change and evolve in the pursuit of knowledge, the lamp seems a fitting representation of the Society and its aims.
Further information To find out more about the Society of Antiquaries and its collections, see www.sal.org.uk. Affiliate Membership costs £65 per year for an individual, £85 for joint membership, and £35 for students, with a £5 discount if paid annually or monthly by direct debit. For more details, see www.sal.org.uk/affiliatemembership.
All images: The Society of Antiquaries of London.