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Plate 1.1: Bronze Lamp Found at St. Leonard's Hill, Windsor
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.1. Commentary by Noah Heringman.
Plate: Unsigned engraving by George Vertue (1684-1756) (Alexander 2008, 273) from a drawing by John Talman (1677-1726), the first director of the Society of Antiquaries of London, who presented it for use as a “symbol” of the Society and a “headpiece or Emblem” to be used in the Society’s publications (SAL Minutes I.19, 22). The image appears here in this capacity, as it does in most publications of the Society down to the present. Different versions of the image have appeared as this symbolism evolved over three centuries, but this engraving is recognizable as the basis of the later versions.
Object: Circa-fourteenth-century bronze lamp, with circular base added in the early eighteenth century. Its history is neatly summed up in a recent catalogue entry: “At first the lamp was presumed to be Roman; it was found at St. Leonard’s Hill, Windsor, in 1717 together with various Roman remains, and closely resembles oil lamps discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum. However, it is now known to be medieval and recent research suggests it may be Jewish” (Gaimster, McCarthy, and Starkey 2007, 61). Emanuel (2000) recounts the historiography of the object and presents evidence that it may have been a medieval Jewish Sabbath lamp. The lamp may have been found as early as 1705 (Ashmole 1723, 3.210) and was probably first shown to the Society by Robert Butler, the gardener who first discovered it, in 1718. Some time afterward the lamp was purchased by Sir Hans Sloane, who donated it to the Society in 1736. It is presently in the museum of the Society of Antiquaries of London (LDSAL 59).
Banner: NON EXTINGVETUR.
Label: Lucerna ӕnea Romana ex Monte S.tiLeonardi juxta Windesoram effossa A.o1717
Bottom: SOCIETAS LONDINI REI ANTIQUARIӔ STVDIOSA. / Ian: A.o MDCCXVIII.
Banner: It shall not be extinguished.
Label: Bronze roman lamp excavated from St. Leonard's Hill near Windsor in 1717.
Bottom: Society of Antiquaries of London. January 1718.
Preparatory Drawings Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.1.
Commentary by Noah Heringman: No image could convey more clearly how important Vetusta Monumenta was for defining the identity of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL). The first print in the series documents an important archaeological find, a lamp presumed at the time to be Roman, but reinterpreted as medieval in the mid-twentieth century and as specifically Jewish in 2000. The caption indicates that this bronze lamp was found in 1717 and the table of contents specifies that it was donated to the SAL by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the physician, naturalist, and antiquary whose collections formed the basis of the British Museum. There is no direct evidence to support the date of 1717—two primary sources suggest an earlier date, as detailed below—or to indicate when the lamp was acquired by Sloane. The minutes of the SAL date back to February 1718 and gaps in this early record pose further obstacles. The first reference to this lamp occurs in the minutes for January 1719, but it was certainly shown to members in March 1718 and may even have been discussed at one of the informal meetings that took place before the Society’s articles of incorporation were drawn up at the end of 1717.
Inspired by the rarity of this find and by the symbolic association of the lamp with knowledge, John Talman must have had two aspects of his role as the Society’s first director in mind when he produced his image of the lamp. Visual documentation of antiquities was crucial to the Society’s research mission, superintended by the director; yet certain symbolic enhancements, including the Latin motto, suggest that Talman was also reaching beyond visual documentation to establish a program of continuity between ancient and modern learning.
The early Society’s decision to order an engraving of the lamp was the first step in a long series of symbolic restatements, extending from the use of this image as a frontispiece in other publications, and its reiteration as a pattern inlaid in brass in the floor of the Society’s modern space in Burlington House, to its prominent placement on the SAL website today. Having declared their intention “to collect and print . . . all the ancient Monuments that come into their hands,” the SAL chose to place this early engraving at the head of their first collection. Fittingly, Talman, who instigated the collective project of a print series (Evans 1956, 62n7), also took a leading role in the discussions and the design efforts that led to the adoption of the lamp as a corporate symbol. The persistence of the image, which recurs on Vertue’s 1723 engraving of a map of London (SAL Res Selectae) and again on Vetusta Monumenta Plate 1.45, paradoxically betrays the shifting status of the object itself, which in turn reveals how methods and values changed in the study of ancient objects.
The lamp’s Romanness was a crucial property for early eighteenth-century antiquaries, some of whom construed the Roman past of Britain as a direct link between English scholarship and classical civilization. Roman sites provided an archive that secured the legitimacy and prestige of British antiquarianism. Roman artifacts from the same site, St. Leonard’s Hill—2 ½ miles SW of Windsor Castle—were shown repeatedly at meetings (SAL Minutes I.37, 62, 163), along with objects from other find spots; a Roman urn excavated by the Society’s president in Norfolk was dramatically opened at a meeting, but was found to contain “Nothing but Bones” (I.27). Vetusta Monumenta features several Romano-British subjects (Plates 1.8, 1.34, 1.47, and 1.48, among others), and Colchester Castle (Plates 1.35-36) may have been the first medieval castle to be chosen because of its particularly strong (if semi-legendary) association with Roman Britain. In 1847, however, Albert Way reported that the Roman age of the lamp was “appears to have been very justly called into question,” but did not exclude the possibility entirely (Way 1847, 13). Revisiting this issue more thoroughly in 1950, I. A. Richmond observed that the image gained currency because the lamp was “believed to be Roman,” but “once the badge and seal were adopted, the object on which they were based was taken for granted . . . until after the recent war” (1950, 24-25). Apparently without knowing of the earlier debate, Richmond presented evidence to support a fourteenth-century date for the lamp.
This image has provided a point of orientation for modern scholars seeking to recover the complex history of the lamp itself, but the print has a fairly complicated history in its own right. The Society’s minutes document clearly enough the early interest in this lamp, the prominent role taken by Talman in its depiction, and its association with Sloane, who eventually donated the lamp to the Society in 1736 (SAL Minutes II.215).1 The minutes also provide a suggestive, but incomplete record of events leading to the production of this plate. The caption, which clearly indicates that the lamp was “dug up near Windsor in 1717” [juxta Windesoram effossa Ao. 1717], may be incorrect. Two primary sources suggest an earlier date of c. 1705-06 (Ashmole 1723, 3.210; Hill 1718). A letter by James Hill, dated March 1718, describes an encounter with Robert Butler, widely credited with the discovery of the lamp and the four Bronze Age artifacts found with it “12 years ago.” Hill adds that he has “taken draughts of the Antique,” and though these drawings do not survive, it is likely that William Stukeley’s drawing of all five objects, the earliest visual record, was made at the same time and perhaps based on Hill’s. Stukeley (1687-1765), the Society’s first secretary and one of the most important antiquaries of the century, notes on his undated drawing that the objects were “found about 10 years ago” (SAL MS 265, f. 11). The SAL Treasurer’s Book confirms a payment on 17 March 1718 to a courier who came from Windsor with Roman antiquities (1718-1738, f. 247). Like Plate 1.1 and the engraving in Ashmole (1723, 3.210), Stukeley’s drawing shows the circular base added to the lamp after its discovery, suggesting that Butler may have been responsible for the addition. The date on the print, 1 January 1718, is likely a symbolic one, meant to cement the lamp’s association with the SAL articles of incorporation, which carry the same date.
The official Minute Book account sheds little light on this initial sequence of events, or even on the production of the first engraving, perhaps because of a gap in the record in March and April 1718 (SAL Minutes I.10-11). The subject is taken up, however, in 1719, and this account of the print differs in two important respects from the Minute Book account of the next three prints in the series. First, this print was apparently not distributed to booksellers, as the other three were. Second, there is no record of a vote having been taken to order this engraving (as there is in the other cases). The image is first mentioned on 14 January 1719: “Mr. Director brought us a proof of an Etch’d plate of a Roman Lamp, to be used as a Symbol or Ticket of the Society” (SAL Minutes I.19). The decision to “order 100 more of the Lamp” on 18 February (SAL Minutes I.20) presumably refers to this “etch’d Plate,” though the Vetusta Monumenta plate is engraved rather than etched (and the word “more” implies some previous unrecorded order). Another detail from 18 February is of particular interest: “inscription to be added.” The Latin motto non extinguetur (shall not be extinguished) appears in the finished plate and accompanies the version of the lamp chosen for the Society’s seal in 1770.2 If the inscription on the lamp itself (Lucerna aenea) is meant, however, this could signal a larger print run meant for public consumption; the label would not have been required when the audience was limited to members. Two variant copies of this print survive, one with only the engraved motto (SAL Res Selectae) and another with a colored border, in which the inscription on the lamp has been added by hand (SAL Engravings by Vertue).
Further complicating matters, Talman is described as bringing a “Sketch of a Design,” apparently based on the lamp, to a meeting on 25 March, “which he was ordered to have etched” (SAL Minutes I.22)—more than a month after 100 copies of an already existing print had been ordered. Joan Evans, in her generally meticulous history of the SAL, assumes that this “head piece or Emblem” is identical with the plate in Vetusta Monumenta (1956, 70), but the chronology clearly indicates that Talman’s sketch must be at least a revision of an existing print, and thus at least a second or even a third version of this subject. However, Bernard Nurse points out (pers. comm.) that the Treasurer’s Book records a payment to Giuseppe Grisoni on 9 October 1719 for drawing the frontispiece for the Society’s first book publication, the Registrum Honoris de Richmond (1722). Since Grisoni worked regularly with Talman (see Plate 1.4), this was probably a finished drawing based on Talman’s sketch of 25 March. In fact, the lamp is not mentioned in this entry at all, but since it does eventually appear as an “Emblem of the Works of the Society at the beginning of any publications”, some connection is warranted (SAL Minutes I.22). Talman’s original design has not been traced, but another version appears on the title page of Archaeologia I (1770), where it is incorporated into the seal of the newly chartered SAL. Evans implies that other versions might have appeared on earlier title pages (1956, 70), and she gives a detailed account of the design of the seal as a product of eighteen years’ deliberation (1956, 106-07). The seal, incorporating the lamp and the motto above a shield bearing the cross of St. George, with the English crown at its center, features on SAL title pages through the twentieth century; today, a more schematic image of the lamp appears on the title pages of The Antiquaries’ Journal and other current publications.
Attention to this complex history is warranted by the unique symbolic importance of this plate in its many versions, as attested by the rich vocabulary used ever since to capture its symbolic function: this lamp has been described in print as the Society’s “emblem,” “badge,” “ticket,” “seal,” “head piece,” and “symbol.”
Even from the start, the circulation of this lamp in multiple visual forms suggests that the symbolic import of the object mattered as much as visual documentation in the case of this particular print. Comparison with a photograph of the lamp shows that liberties were taken with the lamp not only by Talman, and probably by George Vertue, but even by the antiquaries who prepared the object itself for display by adding a base to emulate its presumed original function as a table lamp (Gaimster et al. 2007, 61). Richmond was the first to notice an eyelet concealed by this base that shows it was originally a hanging lamp, suspended by the arms at the top and with a chain attached to this eyelet to support a drip pan for leaking lamp oil. This bronze base, taken from a different artifact altogether, is broken at the bottom and may have been hexagonal; the engraving shows it neatly rounded off and inserts imaginary wicks in the original lamp’s four nozzles. The addition of the wicks and the smoke underscores the symbolic recoding of this lamp as a lamp of learning, never to be extinguished. Drawing on well-known conventions of neoclassical design, the engraving adds a cartouche with botanical flourishes for the caption (reminiscent of Wenceslaus Hollar’s designs) as well as a banner above to bear the motto (non extinguetur). The engraving may contain elements from more than one of the versions presented by Talman, but the flourishes are generally consistent with Vertue’s composition of subsequent plates.
Stukeley’s drawing of the lamp appears on a page with several other “Brasse Antiquitys” found “under a Stone” at St. Leonard’s Hill; Richmond points out that the four other objects on this page of drawings are Bronze Age axe and spear heads, and he traces the long history of occupation on this site on through Roman Britain to the fourteenth century, when a hermit’s chapel on the hill became a popular pilgrimage site (1950, 23).3 Like many archaeological sites, this one poses the difficulty of disentangling objects from different periods, sometimes very remote from each other in time. The Bronze Age artifacts depicted by Stukeley were “in the possession of Robert Butler at the Hermitage” (SAL MS 265, f. 6) and Butler exhibited further finds at meetings of the Society in 1720, 1722, and 1725 (SAL Minutes I.37, 62, 163). In the latter instance, Stukeley (as secretary) notes that the Society purchased the artifacts from Butler, adding, “they dig up many Urns of all sorts thereabouts” (163). Sloane, who presumably acquired this lamp from Butler, also lent other objects from his collection to be exhibited at SAL meetings or engraved for their publications (see Plate 1.20). One of these was a “copper trumpet” also found at St. Leonard’s Hill, “where the Lamp thats drawn in the Society’s old Minute book, was also found” (II.94, possibly referencing SAL MS 265).
The confusion created by the simultaneous excavation of objects from multiple periods provides one of the clues that allowed Richmond to reclassify the lamp as medieval. Having established that the lamp depicted here differed from ancient Roman lamps in two key respects, Richmond identified closely analogous lamps from the Middle Ages. The closest analogue was a lamp discovered at Lincoln, near the “southernmost gate of the Roman town,” which seemed to present a similar chronological ambiguity (Richmond 1950, 25). Both lamps, though the general shape resembles that of some Roman lamps, have open nozzles and a fixture for attaching the drip pan, proving that they were hanging lamps. With this general analogy in place, the Windsor and Lincoln lamps can be linked to other lamps with a firm medieval date, even though the number of nozzles and the type of ornament on the hanging arms vary considerably. Richmond presents additional analogues from London, France, and Flanders, most dating from the fourteenth century. More recently, R. R. Emanuel presented another analogue from Bristol with a thirteenth-century date, quite similar in form to the engraved lamp but with three nozzles instead of four.
The significance of Emanuel’s contribution lies not in the date or the form of the Bristol lamp, but in the find spot. Emanuel reports that this lamp was excavated on “the site of the New Jewry” and identified as a Jewish Sabbath lamp (2000, 310). Emanuel’s brief note is rich in illustrations that support this identification, not only for the Bristol lamp but also for the Windsor lamp. He presents numerous pictorial analogues representing Sabbath lamps from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. Oddly, however, Emanuel does not engage with Richmond’s paper, which assumes that these lamps were commonly used in Christian settings, including the hermit’s chapel at St. Leonard’s Hill and a London church where another example was found (Richmond 1950, 23). While Emanuel presents convincing evidence that this style of lamp was used as a Sabbath lamp, more work may be needed to establish the religious context of the Society’s lamp, and the use of a prevalent style of lamp in secular settings should not be ruled out either.
The target audience of Vetusta Monumenta Plate 1.45, which depicts this lamp in a very different context, would have been expected to recognize the allusion to the plate we are discussing here. The bound volume first issued in 1747 facilitated this recognition for later readers, and the second lamp is now only a mouse click away. The later plate, a portrait of Bishop Thomas Tanner (1630-1682), a prominent member of the SAL from 1718 until his death in 1735, incorporates the lamp into a decorative border. Vertue’s engraving depicts Tanner’s portrait in an ornate oval frame resting on an imaginary tabletop with other objects: antiquarian books and seals to the left, and a three-quarters view of the lamp to the right. Though the lamp is not to scale, Vertue achieves a daring trompe-l’oeil effect here by depicting the lamp as lit and burning—the flames are much more pronounced than in the original engraving—and by rendering the banner as a physical object suspended on the arms of the lamp. He places his signature (G. Vertue Sculpt.) on the base of the lamp, indirectly asserting his authorship of the earlier print. This rich layering of symbolic resonance is typical of Vertue’s art and of the visual culture produced by the early Society of Antiquaries more generally. The lamp functions here to honor a learned prelate, much as it functions in plate one to establish the light of knowledge as sacred to the Society. The lamp appears as an emblem for wisdom in at least one Renaissance emblem book (Ripa 1709, 67), and lamps of knowledge or learning begin to appear regularly in the seals of universities and other institutions, mainly after 1800.
In its initial iconic representation, the bronze lamp known informally today as the “lamp of knowledge” forms a bridge between ancient and modern learning very much in the spirit of the founders of the SAL. The lamp reminds us, too, that the SAL is an Enlightenment institution founded by Dissenters and by Catholics such as Talman and Vertue—not secular, but invested in religious pluralism. The recent recontextualization of the lamp as Jewish provides continuity with the religious perspective suggested by the original find spot, while the shifting status of the object itself—first Roman, then medieval—beautifully captures the fallible human quality of knowledge making as a practice.
: Sloane’s name appears in the first table of contents printed for “the book of the printed works of the Society” in 1738 (SAL Minutes III.178), before the title Vetusta Monumenta or a publication plan had been adopted. The 1747 table of contents departs only slightly from this 1738 version, also titled Rerum Elenchus.
: It cannot be established with certainty from the Minute Book that this print was “the first . . . to be issued to members” of the society (Gaimster, et al. 2007, 61), even though it was placed first when the series was bound into a volume in 1747. Alexander notes that “Vol. I P.I” was added to the upper right-hand corner in 1747 (2008, 273). Depending on which version of the lamp we take to be the Vetusta Monumenta plate, the printing sequence could be construed as plates 3-2-4-1. Beginning with the fifth print in the series, the printing chronology correlates more clearly with the order in which they appear in the bound volumes.
: Richmond, however, wrongly assumes that Stukeley owned the lamp and “presented” it to the SAL.
The author would like to thank Bernard Nurse for invaluable assistance with this commentary.
Alexander, David. 2008. “George Vertue as Engraver.” The Volume of the Walpole Society 70: 207-517.
Ashmole, Elias. 1723. Antiquities of Berkshire. 3 vols. London: Printed for W. Mears . . . and J. Hooks.
Emanuel, R. R. 2000. “The Society of Antiquaries’ Sabbath Lamp.” Antiquaries Journal 80: 309-15.
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.
Hill, James. 1718. Letter to Humfrey Wanley, March. Harley MS 3779, fol 260. British Library.
Richmond, I. A. 1950. “Stukeley’s Lamp, The Badge of the Society of Antiquaries.” Antiquaries Journal 30: 22-27.
Ripa, Cesare. (1593) 1709. Iconologia: or, Moral Emblems. London: Benjamin Motte.
Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.
-----. MS 265. Stukeley, 1718-21, Minutes and Notes. “Brasse Antiquitys,” fol. 6 [p. 11].
-----. Prints and Drawings, Engravings by Vertue [197h], page 1 [no folio number]. Print of lamp with inscription added in ink.
-----. Prints and Drawings, Res Selectae Antiquariorum Societate [4e], page 1 [no folio number]. Print of lamp with motto but no inscription.
-----. Prints and Drawings, Res Selectae Antiquariorum Societate [4e], An Exact Surveigh of the Streets, Lanes, and Churches [of London], [no folio number]. George Vertue’s copy of a map of 1666.
-----. Treasurer’s Book 1718-1738 [27A]. Payments for March 1718, fol. 247.
Way, Albert. 1847. Catalogue of Antiquities, Coins, Pictures, and Miscellaneous Curiosities, in the possession of the Society of Antiquaries of London. London: John Bowyer Nichols.1111
Vetusta Monumenta: An Introduction
Introduction to the digital edition of Vetusta Monumenta
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.
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