Making History. Antiquaries in Britain 1707-2007
An exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts,
London, 15 September – 2 December 2007
by Vittoria Feola
Overall, the exhibition on Antiquaries in Britain was a success. It has many merits. First, it has brought British antiquaries back to the fore. Secondly, it has shown that so much of British history and archeology were researched and written by antiquaries. Thirdly, it has clearly made available to a large public, for the first time, antiquaries‘ contribution to art and to the Romantic movement. Inevitably, in an exhibition of such a large scope, a few things have gone unnoticed. This review will point them out, only with the aim to enrich our understanding of British antiquaries. It is hoped that most readers will have not missed such a great event in London. If they have, this review hopes to arouse their curiosity about Antiquaries in Britain, and, above all, about Making History.
This exhibition celebrated three hundred years of historical, geographical, archaeological, and artistic achievements by the Society of Antiquaries of London. It was founded in 1707, just after the Act of Union between England and Scotland (Wales being considered as part of England) whereby Great Britain was established as a new political entity.
The Society of Antiquaries of London is presented here as the oldest independent Learned Society concerned with the study of British past. The main goal of this exhibition was to assess the Society‘s contributions to our understanding of Britain‘s history since 1707.
As the Society is the heir of two centuries of antiquarian scholarship in the British Isles, the first rooms were duly dedicated to those sixteenth- and seventeenth-century forerunners, such as John Leland – the first Englishman who styled himself antiquarius, and who was a great collector of books and manuscripts for King Henry VIII – and John Aubrey, a seventeenth-century proto-archaeologist who tried to solve the mystery of Stonehenge before many subsequent fellows of the Society of Antiquaries would add their share to hypotheses concerning British druids and similar fancies.
In these first rooms (Mist of Time, The Earliest Antiquaries) viewers were also reminded that several early antiquaries had been heralds, that is, civil servants belonging to the College of Arms, whose tasks include ascertaining subjects‘ rights to arms and to the landholding rights which go with them, as well as dealing with court ceremonial. Unfortunately, this exhibition did not emphasize that a significant contribution to historical research about English political and legal history came from seventeenth-century antiquaries-heralds, such as William Dugdale and Elias Ashmole, to mention but two out of a string of many. It was they who laid the solid foundations for the work of the post-1707 Society of Antiquaries. Although Dugdale‘s Monasticon Anglicanum (1655) is noted, it was above all the here missing Origines Juridiciales (1666) which would have best illustrated this point. Equally missing from a sound analysis is Elias Ashmole‘s Institution, Laws and Ceremonies of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672). Anyway, this exhibition is more concerned with the post-1707 antiquaries, so speaking too little of the seventeenth century is but a péché mignon.
Moving to the rooms dedicated to Foundation and Fellowship and Collecting for Britain, people can learn a great deal about the Society‘s founding fathers, including that to be an antiquary was fashionable in the eighteenth century. Such fashionable identity the antiquary shared with the scientist, witness the fact that in 1781, when the Society of Antiquaries moved to new premises in Somerset House, it shared them with the Royal Society (as well as with the Royal Academy of Arts). Indeed such link between antiquarian undertakings and science has been strong throughout the early modern period, from fourteenth-century Humanism until at least the end of the eighteenth century. Antiquaries would collect objects and texts whereby to produce the history of particular branches of nature. For instance, Robert Plot (here mentioned) curator of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, published the Natural History of Oxfordshire (1677) on the basis of collections of both natural objects, such as plants, and books about those plants. To say it with the philosopher Francis Bacon, to whom antiquaries often looked as a source of inspiration, I find this part of the exhibition deficient, in that it did not present a whole rounded picture of what antiquaries were like. Science was a not negligible part of antiquarian endeavours, and yet it goes almost unnoticed.
Equally too lightly touched on was the direct filiation of the Society of Antiquaries to Humanism, with the whole Continental baggage which comes with it. This exhibition is the celebration of British antiquaries and their achievements in the study of Britain‘s past. An Anglo-centric bias was almost unavoidable, and indeed, needed. This exhibition rightly insists on the notion that collecting was central to the activities of British antiquaries. What could have been added is the means of acquisition whereby British antiquaries managed to build their splendid collections. Here a glance at Europe, and at that too-often misused concept of Republic of Letters, would have come handy. British antiquaries, just like their continental fellows, needed to acquire things which often were not at hand. Hence they exchanged shells, stuffed birds, scientific instruments, dusty manuscripts, shiny new books, across the whole of Europe and beyond. Networks of antiquaries were a feature of the intellectual life of early modern Europe. Yet this exhibition does not mention them, as if British antiquaries acquired all their foreign objects by travel: the Arundell Marbles spring to mind. This could misguide people into attributing a particular social status to antiquaries. Lord Arundell was more an exception than the rule. Antiquaries were not members of the aristocracy, rather, they came from more or less wealthy gentry.
In The Art of Recording we are reminded that in an age without photography, accurate drawings were essential. Hence the employment of artists, such as J. M. W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. This was a treat, which perhaps could have been complemented by a brief notice about the contribution of antiquarianism to European art generally, and especially in still life pictures and engraven portraits. However, much room was devoted to the interconnections between British art and antiquarianism, from the eighteenth and nineteenth-century antiquarian publications of engravings of illustrations, to the antiquarian contribution to the nineteenth-century myth of the Romantic Middle Ages.
The sections Lost and Found, Opening the Tomb, and Bringing Truth to Light are devoted to the impact of the Industrial revolution to antiquarian curiosity. The intensification of agriculture with the subsequent great digging for building new infrastructures brought about many chance discoveries. These often included tombs. Antiquaries had been opening burials since...antiquity, yet the eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw a whole new way of Opening the Tomb. The late eighteenth-century invention of the Gothic Middle Ages was the framework for much antiquarian tomb opening. This exhibition provides a magisterial setting for the big question: were antiquaries Romantics who wished to understand humanity from decay and ruin, or were they just nosy people who disturbed the dead?
A fine exhibition indeed.
Université libre de Bruxelles