Founding the Society of Antiquaries
On 5 December 1707, John Talman, the son of an architect, Humfrey Wanley, a student of ancient inscriptions and Anglo-Saxon, and John Bagford, an eccentric shoemaker and dealer in books, met for the purposes of forming a Society for the study of British antiquities.
An outline of the proposed activities of the Society was drafted by Wanley for his patron Robert Harley, Earl of Oxford, to present to Queen Anne for the purposes of Royal incorporation. Optimistically, he included a list of some 35 books that would be written, under such headings as The Country, The King, The Church, The People and Good Books Wanted. Unfortunately, Harley’s dismissal from Anne’s government left them without powerful connections and the proposal lapsed. Continuing to meet informally, a proper constitution was not established until 1718.
Meeting at the Mitre Tavern in Fleet Street, formal minutes of the Society began on 1 January 1718. At these gatherings members would present interesting objects or finds for discussion, report on the condition of ancient buildings and propose new theories on the design and purpose of pre-Roman monuments. Much time was spent on the more traditional interests of genealogy, heraldry and the study and reading of ancient charters and manuscripts. The first secretary of the Society was the eccentric William Stukeley, a doctor, who had an acute eye for detail and outstanding powers of observation, although his reputation was undermined by his more fanciful theories.
Intrigued by Aubrey’s suggestion that Avebury was a pre-Roman monument, Stukeley spent time over a number of years drawing, measuring and surveying, both here and at nearby Stonehenge. Alarmed by the loss of stones to local builders in the village of Avebury, he was determined to reconstruct the original layout as closely as possible. Using the newly invented theodolite, an optical instrument used to measure angles, and modern surveying methods, he was able to calculate the original number and position of the stones, and draw an accurate geometrical representation of the site.
Stukeley was the first to observe the alignment of Stonehenge to the summer and winter solstices, but his belief that both monuments were temples of the Druids had no basis in actual evidence, although it still persists today. With his observations, Stukeley was reclaiming the reputation of the Druids from Caesar’s accusations of barbarity.
From its low-key beginnings, the Society took an important step forward after it received the gift of a large collection of drawings and engravings in 1749. In order to own property it needed Royal incorporation, and this was granted by George II in 1751. From then on the development of its collection was actively pursued, concentrating on illustrations and manuscripts. The housing of artefacts was more problematical, but these were frequently given to the Society, as no other institution was concerned with their preservation. In 1828 the Reverend Thomas Kerrich gave his important collection of early paintings of royalty to the Society, nearly 30 years before the foundation of the National Portrait Gallery. They include the finest portraits of Edward IV and Mary Tudor and two of Richard III that show how his image became distorted by Tudor propaganda.
More official recognition of the Society followed when they were granted rooms alongside the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Arts in the newly built government offices in Somerset House in 1781. An expansion of membership and a raised public profile led to greater understanding of the way in which the Society’s differing activities contributed to a sense of the British past.
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This text is abridged from the Royal Academy Education Department's guide, Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007: An Introduction, by Greg Harris.
Click here to download a PDF of this guide (1.3 MB)