Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Vetusta Monumenta: An Introduction

By Noah Heringman

"Illustration was the technique par excellence of the antiquary."
- Alain Schnapp, The Discovery of the Past

Vetusta Monumenta [Ancient Monuments], published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1906, was the first of four major publication series launched by the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) in the eighteenth century. The first four plates were published individually in 1718, the year the society was formally re-established at the Mitre Tavern. By commissioning these engravings, the SAL defined its research agenda in terms of preservation, visual documentation, and collecting. This agenda, and the publication of images as a means of pursuing it, remained consistent throughout the eighteenth century, even though membership grew steadily—and steadily richer—from the original socially diverse group of eighteen members to 300 in 1770 and 800 by 1820 (Pearce 2007, 147).

In 1751, the SAL received its royal charter, which gave it a status equal to the Royal Society; and charged its Fellows with the “encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.” In keeping with this broad mission, the objects selected for inclusion in Vetusta Monumenta form a large and varied set, ranging from artifacts such as a Romano-British marble bust and medieval monastic seals to architectural monuments including Fountains Abbey. The objects depicted range in age from roughly the 3rd to the 17th century CE. Since some charters, maps, and other documents were also engraved for the series, the distinction between “history” and “antiquities” can be deployed to class the engravings loosely as historical (documents) and antiquarian (artifacts and monuments), but this distinction is more a product of twentieth-century historiography than of the antiquaries' own motives.

The first secretary, William Stukeley, recorded at the first meeting that the society was formed “with a design at their own charge to collect and print and keep exact Registers . . . of all Antient Monuments that come into their hands” (quoted in Evans 1956, 58). John Talman, the first director, was later credited with the original idea of publishing a series of prints (Evans 1956, 62n7). Fellows of the society received copies of each engraving as a benefit of membership and additional copies went to book and print-sellers, but not always enough to make up the deficit between the cost of the prints and revenue from membership dues.

Selecting subjects for the engravings was a major responsibility of the Fellows, and later specifically the Council, of the SAL. Neither the engraver nor the director had editorial control of these decisions, and some entries in the Society’s Minute Books record the lively discussion that sometimes accompanied the selection process. Although some critics protested that the objects were miscellaneous and often trivial, Vetusta Monumenta effectively promoted the history of everyday life. “By producing representations of everyday objects,” as Bernard Nurse has observed, “the Society extended the idea of what would be acceptable for publication” (2007, 143).

Vetusta Monumenta tells a story that is both deeply illuminating for the history of preservation and uniquely relevant for readers and scholars in a digital age. By looking at the kinds of objects chosen for these engravings, we gain insight into the debate over what counts as evidence and what counts as history. By tracing the series from the early individual plates to the formation of a lavish scholarly book publication, we witness the transformation of eclectic private scholarship into a public discourse of antiquities engaged with the literary marketplace. The highly finished, visually captivating quality of many of these prints is matched by their historical significance as records of the state of many monuments that have deteriorated since the eighteenth century; in more than a few cases, these prints provide the sole record of artifacts and monuments that do not themselves survive. A digital scholarly edition of the images and accompanying text materially furthers this goal of preservation and makes the work accessible to a much wider audience. The images owe their strong aesthetic appeal as well as their accuracy to the laborious technique of copper engraving, which also made the original volumes prohibitively expensive for most readers. Now the volumes are extremely rare and even the existing digital version is neither open access nor of high quality. The present edition makes Vetusta Monumenta genuinely accessible, not just by reproducing the content but by providing scholarly commentary, interactive images, search tools, and other benefits of a modern digital edition.

By 1747, seventy engravings had been published, enough to form a substantial volume. The same year, John Ward (1679-1758) became director of the SAL. Ward had begun writing long explanatory captions for some of the plates beginning in 1743, and these soon evolved into printed companion essays in either Latin or English, which appeared occasionally from 1744. The second volume, with 55 more plates, appeared in 1789. It was greatly expanded by these letterpress “explanations of the plates,” which had begun to appear not just occasionally but with every plate or plate set (and consistently in English) from 1763 with Plate 2.20, the first plate engraved for the series by James Basire. Not coincidentally, the Society launched its second serial publication, the learned journal Archaeologia, at about the same time (1770), and the early volumes concluded some archived papers that had been written on objects depicted earlier in the series, but had remained unpublished, such as Samuel Gale's essay on the Horn of Ulf (Plate 1.2). Volume III, the last volume included here, was published in 1796 with 44 plates and about 200 pages of letterpress.

During its first forty years of publication, the most important figure involved with Vetusta Monumenta was the engraver George Vertue (1684-1756), who was also a founding member of the SAL. Vertue engraved all but one of the first 88 plates and also made several of the original drawings. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the central figure was Richard Gough (1735-1809), who became director of the SAL in 1771. After Vertue, there were no engravers in the Society, which was by now more expensive to join and more genteel in its composition. Gough’s predecessor John Taylor hired the engraver James Basire Sr, whose workshop created all the engravings for Vetusta Monumenta from 1763 as well as hundreds of engravings for Archaeologia, the society’s Cathedral Series (1795-1810), and individual publications by members. The last of Vertue’s plates (Plate 2.17) was published the year of his death; after a brief interregnum, the engraving work passed to Basire, who had the work in hand until his death in 1802; it was then taken on by his son, James Basire Jr.
For a brief period, the Society turned its attention to a new series of larger historical prints and no new engravings were published for Vetusta Monumenta between 1770 and 1780 (Nurse 2007, 144). Gough, however, ensured the continuation of the series with seven new plates in 1780 and twenty more by 1789, all with extensive letterpress explications. Though the objects depicted varied widely, the standard form of the prints in each of the two phases (under Vertue and Gough, respectively) helped to establish a recognizable connoisseurial and scholarly idiom. Imperial folio size paper (21 ½ x 14 ½ inches) was used throughout along with a relatively uniform style of engraving and captioning, later giving way to added letterpress. When the first series was bound into a volume, a Latinized subtitle was added, pointing toward conservation (“preserving the memory of [British] things”) as the unified research agenda; this language is reminiscent of Stukeley's insistence on visual documentation in the preface to his Itinerarium Curiosum (Stukeley 1724; Nurse 2007, 143).

The gradually increasing emphasis on text and interpretation in Vetusta Monumenta reflects the shift of primary editorial responsibility from Vertue, an artist and engraver, to Gough, a scholar whose agenda for the society as a whole centered on research and publication. The decision not to include commentary with most of the plates published before 1763, however, does not imply any defect of scholarship on the part of Vertue or the society’s earlier directors and other officers. Rather, the later expansion of Vetusta Monumenta reflects an increasingly strict division of labor characteristic of the later eighteenth century. In the early decades, not only the engravings, but also some of the original drawings, were produced by members of the SAL including Stukeley and Talman. Later in the century, by contrast, both Basire and draftsmen such as John Carter and Jacob Schnebbelie were hired on a contract basis and regarded as more or less menial. They were considered “practical antiquaries” (Gough 1799, 2.i.7) as distinct from those who wrote the scholarly text now seen as central to the discipline. Horace Walpole’s assessment of Vertue captures the earlier integral relationship between engraving and art historical scholarship, along with the emphasis on preservation, embodied in the earlier decades of Vetusta Monumenta: “The many valuable monuments relating to our history, and the persons of our monarchs and great men, which he saved from oblivion, are lasting evidences of his merit” (Walpole 1796, 1.i).

As Nurse has observed, several of the plates in Volume I were engraved from rediscovered drawings of monuments that had already been destroyed, and Sam Smiles notes that the series was produced “at a time of social and economic change, with many sites vulnerable to ‘improvement’ or demolition” (Smiles 2007, 123). A remark from one of Gough’s independent scholarly books, Sepulchral Monuments, signals a generalized anxiety about the loss of monuments that is also indicative for Vetusta Monumenta. “In a few years more we shall have no foundation left for such a work,” Gough declares, and proceeds to list several monuments that are “crumbling away without having been drawn” (Gough 1799, 1.3-4).

Modern scholarship has attended to some individual plates from Vetusta Monumenta, but there has been no systematic account of the publication series as a whole. In recent years, discussion of these plates has revolved around the question of preservation. Maria Grazia Lolla, Rosemary Sweet, and Martin Myrone have all commented specifically on two plates depicting Waltham Cross, one of the “Eleanor Crosses” erected by Edward I in memory of his queen between 1291 and 1294 (Plate 1.7 and Plate 3.12). The society paid for wooden posts to protect the cross from traffic, but this was a trifling effort compared to the expense and care lavished on the print series and other scholarly activities intended to serve preservation. The antiquaries themselves noticed this paradox: “Vetusta Monumenta flourished and the monuments of medieval England fell into decay,” as Joan Evans reflected in her history of this phase of the institution (1956, 192).

Although Vetusta Monumenta has made real contributions to preservation, the engravings collected here also served purposes that were clearly not subservient to the ostensible intention of preserving monuments, including social prestige and aestheticizing representation. These contradictions have led some scholars, such as Lolla and Myrone, to caution against taking the antiquaries’ preservationist claims at face value and instead to emphasize the ideological character of antiquarian prints as representations. A contrasting modern view, represented by Smiles and Matthew M. Reeve, insists on their continuing evidentiary function as visual documentation. More popular illustrated collections of antiquities, by such figures as Samuel and Nathaniel Buck and later John Britton (himself a Fellow of the Society), competed with and ultimately displaced Vetusta Monumenta among general readers by the late eighteenth century.

Vetusta Monumenta provides a uniquely rich record for scholars in the humanities today, who are increasingly interested in the study of objects and material culture. These engravings provide an intimate record of the kinds of objects collectively judged to be important, not by a single author or thinker, but by a large body of scholars and amateurs over the course of eight decades (and beyond, although the nineteenth-century volumes are outside the scope of the present edition). The energies of these wildly diverse objects, ranging from a Roman heating system to a lavish royal portrait to an early Tudor table of weights and measures, exceed the aesthetic framework in which they are placed. In some cases, the engravings become entangled with the afterlives of the objects themselves; the engraving of the Westminster portrait of Richard II (Plate 1.4), for instance, preserves a record of the raised gesso ground confirmed as an original feature of the painting by modern scholars after it was scraped off the original by Victorian restorers. Humanists from many disciplines, whether embracing or resisting influential methodologies such as actor-network theory (Latour 2005), thing theory (Brown 2004), or object-oriented ontology (Harman 2002), may find in Vetusta Monumenta a cluster of objects both highly mediated and uniquely redolent of the intimacy in which their humans lived with them.

While many of the plates present objects in a state of ruin, it would be unhistorical to divorce ruin as a merely picturesque state from ruin as a material condition that demanded archaeological knowledge. Readers of this edition, who also have the Internet at their disposal to compare these beautiful engravings with modern photographs and research, can decide for themselves. While every effort was made not to damage the books in the course of scanning their pages for this edition, some inevitable wear and tear led us to contemplate a similar paradox. Preservation is one legitimate motive for producing a state-of-the-art digital analogue for these images that represent the state of the art in mechanical reproduction for their time. More important, we hope this edition will stimulate the same curiosity, wonder, and skepticism that we have experienced, especially for readers who do not have access to the original volumes. Vetusta Monumenta (I-III) offers a rich repository of antiquarian images and scholarship from a time when the scope and status of antiquity became open and often fiercely contested questions.

Works Cited:

Brown, Bill, ed. 2004. Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

George II of England. 1751. Society of Antiquaries of London Royal Charter.

Gough, Richard. 1786-96 [1799]. Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain. 2 volumes in 5. London: J. Nichols.

Harman, Graham. 2002. Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Peru, IL: Open Court.

Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lolla, Maria Grazia. 1999. “Ceci n’est pas un monument: Vetusta Monumenta and Antiquarian Aesthetics.” In Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice, 1700-1850, edited by Martin Myrone and Lucy Peltz, 5-34. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Myrone, Martin. 2007. “Society of Antiquaries and the Graphic Arts: George Vertue and His Legacy.” In Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007, edited by Susan Pearce, 98-121. London: Society of Antiquaries.

Nurse, Bernard. 2007. “Bringing Truth to Light.” In Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007, edited by David Gaimster, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, 143-45. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Pearce, Susan. 2007. “Antiquaries and the Interpretation of Ancient Objects, 1770-1820.” In Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007, edited by Susan Pearce, 147-74. London: Society of Antiquaries.

Reeve, Matthew. 2007. “Jacob Schnebbelie, Draughtsman to the Society of Antiquaries (1760-92), and the Politics of Preservation in Late Eighteenth-Century England.” Transactions of the Ancient Monuments Society 51: 69-86.

------. 2008. Thirteenth-century Wall Painting of Salisbury Cathedral: Art, Liturgy, and Reform. Suffolk: Boydell and Brewer.

Smiles, Sam. 2007. “The Art of Recording.” In Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007, edited by David Gaimster, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, 123-25. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

------. 2003. “Data, Documentation and Display in Eighteenth-Century Investigations of Exeter Cathedral.” In Tracing Architecture: The Aesthetics of Antiquarianism, edited by Dana Arnold and Stephen Bending, 80-99. Oxford: Blackwell.

------. 2000. Eye Witness: Artists and Visual Documentation in Britain, 1770-1830. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Stukeley, William. 1724. Itinerarium Curiosum. Or, An Account of the Antiquitys and Remarkable Curiositys in Nature or Art, Observ’d in Travels thro’ Great Brittan. London.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

Walpole, Horace. 1796. Anecdotes of Painting in England . . . Collected by the late Mr. George Vertue. 4th ed. London: R. Dodsley.

General Bibliography:

Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaimster, David, Sarah McCarthy, and Bernard Nurse, eds. 2007. Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707-2007. London: Royal Academy of Arts.

Gough, Richard. 1770. “Introduction.” Archaeologia 1: i-xxxix.

Miller, Peter N. 2017. History and Its Objects: Antiquarianism and Material Culture Since 1500. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Myrone, Martin, and Lucy Peltz, eds. 1999. Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice, 1700-1850. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Pearce, Susan, ed. 2007. Visions of Antiquity: The Society of Antiquaries of London, 1707-2007. London: SAL.

Schnapp, Alain. 1997. The Discovery of the Past: the Origins of Archaeology. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1754. Queries Proposed to Gentlemen in the Several Parts of Great Britain, in Hope of Obtaining from Their Answers a Better Knowledge of Its Antiquities and Natural History. London.

------. 1747-1906. Vetusta Monumenta. 7 vols. London: Society of Antiquaries.

Sweet, Rosemary. 2004. Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain. London: Hambledon and London.

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