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Exhibition of treasures from London's Society of Antiquaries highlights milestones in British history
J.M.W. Turner, Saint Augustine’s Gate, Canterbury, ca. 1793, watercolor and graphite on medium, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collectio.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- This February, the Yale Center for British Art will present historic treasures of international importance from the Society of Antiquaries of London, a society for people concerned with the study of Britain’s past that was established three hundred years ago and still thrives today. Through more than one hundred forty objects, including works from the Center and other collections at Yale, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain will explore ways in which scholars have recorded, preserved, and interpreted history since the Society was founded in 1707. The exhibition marks the first North American tour of objects from the Society’s collection and has been organized by the Society of Antiquaries of London in association with the Yale Center for British Art and the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College, where it will debut in September.

The idea of Britain as a nation was promoted following the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707, and gave rise to a growing appreciation of British history and antiquities. The Society of Antiquaries, founded prior to national museums, libraries, and galleries, was long regarded as the main repository in Britain for antiquities, drawings, rare books, manuscripts, and paintings.

On view will be key loans from the Society, including a copy of the Magna Carta from 1225 and the twelfth-century Winton Domesday book. The exhibition will also feature a rare Late Bronze Age shield (ca. 1300–1100 bce) discovered on a farm in Scotland in 1779; a medieval processional cross reportedly recovered from the field of the Battle of Bosworth (1485); the inventory of Henry VIII’s possessions at the time of his death (1550–51); a forty-foot-long illuminated “roll chronicle” on parchment detailing the genealogical descent of Henry II from Adam and Eve; detailed records of lost buildings and objects; an outstanding collection of historic royal portraits from Henry VI to Mary I; and works from the Arts and Crafts movement by William Morris, a Fellow of the Society and founder of the English Arts & Crafts movement whose country house, Kelmscott Manor, is owned by the Society. These loans will be displayed alongside objects from the Center’s celebrated collections of rare books and drawings, including maps, atlases, and works by Samuel Palmer, Edward Burne-Jones, and Augustus Welby Pugin.

Making History has been organized into eight sections:

Discovery of Britain: The Mists of Time and The Earliest Antiquaries
Before the seventeenth century, people in Britain were strongly influenced by pagan or Christian beliefs and ancestral myths. They had limited knowledge of the landscape beyond their own localities, and images of places and buildings were rare.

The first antiquaries challenged previously held views of Britain’s past. Concerned by the destruction of British antiquities during the dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, and by the civil war in 1642–49, they studied and recorded historic monuments in the landscape, as well as manuscript sources relating to family property rights, heraldry, and genealogy.

Founders and Fellows
In 1707, Humfrey Wanley, John Talman, and John Bagford, brought together by their common interest in British history, met at the Bear Tavern in London. A Royal Charter was granted in 1751, and further status came with the Society’s move to new premises in Somerset House in 1781, which it shared with the Royal Academy of Arts and the Royal Society. The Society of Antiquaries became increasingly fashionable, attracting members of the aristocracy to its Fellowship.

Collecting for Britain
In the early nineteenth century, the Society was one of the few institutions engaged in collecting British antiquities. After the grant of the Royal Charter in 1751, which permitted bequests, the collections grew to include prints, drawings, manuscripts, paintings, and printed books. Documents, artifacts, and manuscripts were purchased if deemed significant sources of British history.

Lost and Found
The impact of the Industrial Revolution, the intensification of agriculture, and the expansion of transport infrastructure generated spectacular finds, including bronze and iron weapons of all periods and historical artifacts of outstanding importance. Newly discovered objects were regularly made available to the Society at its weekly meetings. The Society’s early drawings now provide the best records of their original condition.

The Art of Recording
In an age without photography, accurate drawings were essential for identification and comparison. Artists such as Thomas Girtin were commissioned to record historic buildings, monuments, and objects. Models of prehistoric sites and impressions of medieval seals were made. The artists’ diligence in research and commitment to accuracy produced a distinctive vision of British antiquity.

Publishing the Past
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Society embarked on several major projects to publish large engravings of illustrations. These brought its recording work to a wider audience and included series on important historical events, ecclesiastical buildings, paintings discovered at Westminster Abbey, and the first complete color reproductions of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Rediscovery of the Middle Ages
Antiquaries provided raw material for artists and writers. The Victorian era saw the revival of interest in Gothic-style architecture and the decorative arts, which reflected the glories of Britain’s ancient traditions. The artistic output of William Morris and his circle conveyed an attachment to this idealized medieval world and had a major influence on the Arts and Crafts movement.

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