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Digging English History

They ran the gamut from eccentrics to tomb-robbers, but British antiquaries did more than just collect bits and pieces of the past.

St. Thomas Becket Casket, 1195-1200, enamel on copper

St. Thomas Becket Casket, 1195-1200, enamel on copper

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In the England of 300 years ago, when reliable history books didn’t exist, people learned about the past by collecting it. History was what you could touch. Assembling a “cabinet of curiosities”—a mummy or two, some black-letter Chaucers, perhaps a stone chip chiseled from the Colosseum during one’s Grand Tour of the Continent—was how gentlemen of means showed a proper reverence for the glories of the past.

The most dedicated of these amateurs belonged to London’s Society of Antiquaries. Though sometimes mocked as eccentrics who mistook chamber pots for Roman urns, Britain’s early antiquaries were, in many ways, the forerunners of modern historians and archeologists. Their painstaking efforts to uncover the past helped spark the late-18th-century boom in scientific and historical inquiry that would come to be known as the British Enlightenment.

A fascinating exhibition drawn largely from the Society’s archives is now visiting the United States for the first time. “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707–2007” opens on February 2 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Conn. It showcases some 140 rare objects from Britain’s past, from a finely worked Bronze Age shield discovered in a Scottish bog to a spectacular Roman mosaic unearthed in a Gloucestershire churchyard.

Unlike art collectors, antiquaries chased after objects whose value wasn’t obvious to everyone. Writing in 1628, John Earle defined an antiquary as “one that hath that unnaturall disease to bee enamour’d of old age, and wrinckles, and loves all things (as Dutchmen doe Cheese) the better for being mouldy and worm-eaten.”

Elisabeth Fairman, a rare-books authority at the Yale Center, says, “Nobody thought that much of this material was interesting or important enough to collect until the Society of Antiquaries started collecting and recording it in the 18th century.” An American fellow of the Society, Fairman curated the exhibition with experts in London and at Boston College, where the show opened last fall. The Society, she notes, was the first group to view collecting systematically, with an emphasis on recording where and how things were found. After King George II granted the Society a royal charter in 1751, it came to rival England’s hallowed Royal Society in importance and prestige.

Knowledge of Britain’s material past was scant when the Society first met in a tavern in 1707. Many people accepted the 12th-century historian Geoffrey of Monmouth’s explanation that Stonehenge was built by Merlin the magician, its stones carried from Africa by giants. One of several startling items in the show is a drawing published in 1676 by a man named Aylett Sammes showing a hollow, spike-fingered wicker giant. Part Burning Man, part Edward Scissorhands, the figure is crammed with squirming captives about to be set on fire. Human sacrifice, Sammes explained in his Britannia Antiqua Illustrata, was commonly practiced by Britain’s early settlers, the Phoenicians. Offering no hard evidence beyond his own fanciful linguistic research, Sammes concluded that these settlers spoke a variant of Hebrew and dedicated their gruesome rites to the Phoenician Hercules.

Equally imaginative is a 40-foot illuminated parchment scroll, begun during the 15th century, that details the royal family’s descent from Adam and Eve. According to Fairman, spelling it out with colored ink and calligraphy helped bolster the line’s legitimacy in the public mind. “The roll lifted the rulers of England out of the mists of time,” she says.

A number of the artifacts on display are exquisite works of art in their own right. The 800-year-old Lindsey Psalter is open to a full-page letter B (for beatus, or blessed) that starts Psalm I. The initial’s mazelike contours harbor a menagerie of rabbits and other wildlife. Nearby, an ornate enamel-on-copper reliquary is said to hold remains of St. Thomas Becket, the archbishop murdered in his cathedral by henchmen of Henry II in 1170.

A striking 1554 life portrait of a grim, tight-lipped Queen Mary stares with lashless eyes from one wall. “Bloody Mary,” the Catholic offspring of Henry VIII’s woeful first marriage, is best remembered for trying (and failing) to undo her father’s English Reformation by burning hundreds of Protestants at the stake. Next to Mary are two posthumous 16th-century portraits of King Richard III, immortalized by Shakespeare as a humpbacked regicide. In one, the king has a withered left arm, which like other deformities would have signified to Tudor England: here was a villain. In the other painting, which is older and possibly copied from a life portrait, Richard’s physique looks fine; the story that the king was deformed spread only after his archenemy Henry Tudor gained the throne.

While some of these works were well cared for from the start, many were dug up after centuries in the ground, particularly in the late 1700s as the vogue for antiquarianism grew. A carved wooden cross with a socket at the base was unearthed in 1778 by a farmer’s plow at Bosworth Field, site of the climactic battle of the War of the Roses three centuries earlier. It was likely carried into battle atop a processional staff. Carved sunbursts suggest that a Yorkist follower of Richard III carried it before either fleeing or dying on the spot, like his king. A much older artifact was discovered in 1796 by a clog-maker’s son playing in a Lancashire field. Known as the Ribchester Helmet, this ornamented bronze visor helmet and face mask was probably part of the parade regalia worn by a cavalryman in Roman Britain. The exhibition includes both the bronze headgear and a superb watercolor depicting it in detail, corrosion and all.

A more reliable way to uncover relics than waiting for plows or children was to open up old tombs. Not surprisingly, “Making History” abounds in grave goods. A particularly energetic member of the Society of Antiquaries was Bryan Faussett, an 18th-century minister from Canterbury who methodically probed some 750 English burial mounds. Among the mostly Anglo-Saxon treasures he and his son unearthed is an intricate gold brooch inlaid with turquoise and garnet from the 7th century A.D. The reverend’s enthusiasm for early British artifacts set him apart from other gentlemen collectors, even members of the Society, who typically preferred ancient Greek and Roman material to “primitive” home-grown relics. Indeed, when Faussett’s stunning brooch was offered for sale in 1853 along with 400 other pieces of ancient British jewelry, the British Museum showed no interest, sniffing that it lacked aesthetic value.

Occasionally, Society members won permission to pry open royal coffins. In 1816, Thomas Rowlandson caricatured a pushy scrum of elderly antiquaries crowding around an open casket in Westminster Abbey. The drawing accompanied a William Combe poem mocking the antiquaries’ enthusiasm (“A curious wish their fancies tickled/To know how Royal Folk were pickled”), although one of the men seems intent mostly on pulling a ring off the dead king’s finger. With that figure, Rowlandson was likely alluding to a rumor that the Society’s director in 1774, Richard Gough, had tried making off with one of Edward I’s bejeweled fingers during a tomb-opening. Looming over the collectors like a guilty conscience is the skeleton figure of Death, poised to hurl a spear.

By the early 1800s there was widespread nostalgia for Britain’s supposed Golden Age—the “Merrie Olde England” of medieval knights, damsels, jousts and troubadours. The historical novels of Sir Walter Scott (a Society member) helped spur the trend. So did the Napoleonic Wars, which prompted British tourists to swear off traveling on the Continent and to visit picturesque ruins at home instead. One result is an evocative watercolor of Tintern Abbey in Wales painted by J.M.W. Turner in the mid-1790s. A favorite of Romantic poets, including Wordsworth, the immense medieval church is portrayed as the epitome of the picturesque: roofless, dilapidated and overgrown, yet still majestic.

Eschewing ruins for reconstruction, English architect A.W.N. Pugin in the 1830s brought back the medieval era in stone and mortar with his designs for the new Houses of Parliament, which remain the world’s best-known examples of Gothic Revival style. A generation later, the Pre-Raphaelites freely re-imagined a medieval aesthetic that combined mythic story lines and lushly draped Victorian models. An example in the exhibition is an embroidered velvet wall hanging by William Morris that features a soon-to-be-martyred St. Catherine as a heavy-lidded femme fatale.

The grandest of all English historical artifacts, Stonehenge, has stayed put. From its earliest days, the Society of Antiquaries has been investigating its enduring mysteries—or trying to. An early Society member was certain that Druids built it. Others thought the structure was Gothic, or maybe Roman. Only in the 20th century did carbon dating, facilitated by the Society, establish that Stonehenge has been in existence for 5,000 years.

Uncertainty about the monument’s origins have only encouraged artists to depict it, usually with storm clouds. One of the dramatic renderings on display in “Making History” is a J.W. Inchbold oil from the 1860s of a backlit Stonehenge near dusk with shafts of blood-red light streaming through the gaps. It’s a view as unearthly as any Druid could want.


By Doug Stewart

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: February 2012

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