Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

The Portrait Prints

By Rosemary Sweet

Sir John Fenn’s category of “Portrait” prints is certainly not the largest in Vetusta Monumenta and, on the face of it, it appears as a somewhat random collection of miscellaneous portraits, ranging from Eadwine, the twelfth-century monk from Canterbury whose sketch of the ground plan of the monastery provided essential evidence of the history of monastic buildings, to the fashionable mezzotint portrait of the President, Charles Lyttelton. Between these two chronological bookends were the Westminster portrait of Richard II, the engraving of two portrait medals of Elizabeth I, and portraits of Sir Robert Cotton, a leading antiquary of the seventeenth century, and two of the key figures of the revived eighteenth-century society, Thomas Tanner and George Holmes. Nor are these prints spread evenly across the volumes as the third volume of Vetusta Monumenta contains no portrait prints at all. In this context, it is important to remember that Fenn’s catalogue was a retrospective attempt to impose order and a rationale upon the Society’s somewhat ad hoc approach to its record keeping and to the publication of prints. Fenn was very much a product of the Enlightenment taxonomic impulse: the categorisation of objects not only created order, but facilitated comparison and therefore the production of knowledge. Vetusta Monumenta, however, grew organically without any explicit agenda beyond the illustration of British antiquities.
However, we should also recognise the importance of portrait prints and their collection, both as a genre of “antiquities” and as a means of establishing an institutional identity. By the early eighteenth century, when the Society was founded, portrait prints had become widely available to collectors (Clayton 1997, 60–61). Books were published with portrait prints of their authors, while portraits of historical figures, collated from manuscripts, paintings, and coins, formed the basis of publications such as William Mears’ Effigies of all the Kings and Queens of England, from the Conquest to the Present Time (1723), engraved by the Society’s engraver, George Vertue. Vertue himself went on to publish a notable collection in True Portraitures and Characters of the Royal Martyre King Charles the First, and the Several Noble, Loyal and Reverend Worthies following, that Suffered for the Royal Cause, the Religion and Laws of England (1735). Today the practice of collecting portrait prints is particularly associated with “grangerization,” the extra-illustration of published volumes with prints (of any kind) related to the text, which boomed in popularity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Pointon 1993; Peltz 2016). But the practice actually had much longer antecedents going back to the seventeenth century. The antiquary Elias Ashmole, for example, was said to be “so eager to obtain all faces, that when he could not get a face by it-self, he would buy the book, tear it [the portrait] out, paste it in his blank book, and write under it from when he had taken it”(Nichols 1812–15 2.161). Given that portraiture was an art form at which British artists were believed to excel in this period, portrait prints, such as those produced by a skilled engraver like Vertue, represented the best of native artistic achievement (Lippincott 1995, 75). To collect them was in that sense a patriotic act, but more importantly collecting portrait prints of British worthies – whether historical or distinguished figures of the present – was a celebration of British history. Portraits then, like coins or medals, were a form of “antiquity” that could both illustrate the past and reveal something of the character, or personal history, of the illustrious. Ideally, as John Evelyn outlined, engraved portraits should be accompanied by inscriptions with the name, qualities, virtues, signal works, etc. of the subject which would, in effect, comprise a form of biographical dictionary (Pointon, 1993, 63). But antiquaries looked to the future too, and prints of contemporary portraits were a means of preserving the memory of their peers for generations to come.

In 1748, the antiquary Joseph Ames published A Catalogue of English Heads in which he aimed to document over 2000 portrait heads that had thus far been published. His preface makes clear the perceived value of the portrait print both as form of antiquity and as a celebration of English history:
This first Attempt to describe the Prints of ENGLISH HEADS will meet, I hope, the Favour of the curious as here they may find several Particulars not un-worthy their Notice; besides others, very considerable; to know the Time of the Birth, Death, and most memorable Actions of many Persons, not to be found in any other Records, alone must recommend its Usefulness to Gentlemen, Historians, Painters, Engravers, and all Lovers of the Antiquities of this Nation.

A number of the Society’s members, especially in the first half of the eighteenth century, were collectors of portrait prints, along with coins, cameos and intaglios, and exhibited or gave prints to the Society. George Vertue was, unsurprisingly, the most notable of these, but others included Richard Rawlinson, Joseph Ames, author of A Catalogue of English Heads, Robert Dingley, and Andrew Coltée Ducarel. However, the discussion of portraits and portrait prints at meetings of the Society was relatively unusual compared to the far more frequent exhibition and discussion of coins and medals or funerary monuments and inscriptions. In this regard, it is worth noting that Fenn chose to include the portrait medals of Elizabeth I in the category of “portraits” as opposed to coins and medals (while also making a cross reference to Class II, the coins and medals). It may be that he determined that the chief interest of the medals lay in the representations they provided of the Queen as opposed to their significance as specimens of numismatic design. Although they are known now to have been designed by Nicholas Hilliard – who was admired as an artist, especially by George Vertue – there is nothing in the Society’s Minute Books to suggest that contemporaries were aware of the attribution. It is, however, possible that Fenn was aware of the Hilliard connection, and it may have been this that made him categorise the medals as portraits, unlike the coins of Edward VI and Henry VIII which appear on the same page.

This raises the question of which portraits the Society chose to engrave for Vetusta Monumenta, given that a far wider range of portraits and portrait prints was exhibited to the Society than ever appeared in the series. Moreover, as Fenn’s catalogue shows, the Society did engrave other portraits – they simply were not published in Vetusta Monumenta (Fenn 1784). Sadly, the Society’s minutes rarely provide much insight into the context in which decisions were made and it is difficult to reconstruct what rationale member or fellows of the Society were employing. Practical considerations – such as size – could be as significant as subject matter. There had been plans to engrave the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII and his family (from a copy, then hanging in Kensington Palace, of the lost Whitehall original), but Vertue deemed the faces of the figures so small that if they were reduced to a size suitable for engraving “it would not answer the purposes of the Society” (SAL Minutes I.20). Despite these reservations, Vertue eventually published a print of this and eight other royal portraits in 1740, which were republished by the Society in 1776, but not in Vetusta Monumenta.

The decision to include the portrait of the monk Eadwine, the earliest of the portraits, could be seen as incidental to the engraving of his drawings of Canterbury Cathedral and Priory. But Eadwine was in a sense a proto-antiquary in that in making these drawings he had recorded and preserved information about the monastery; as such, he implicitly gave the Antiquaries a lineage which went back to the Middle Ages. The print of Richard II fits less obviously with establishing antiquarian precedents and George Vertue would go on to publish a number of other royal portraits as we have seen. More significant, perhaps, than Richard’s kingly status, was the fact that it was believed to be one of the earliest surviving portraits of an English monarch: it was this that rendered it of particular antiquarian interest. Clearly Elizabeth I was not an antiquary either, but it was during her reign that the first Society of Antiquaries was established and that the founding text of British antiquarianism, William Camden’s Britannia, was first published in 1586. It is also worth noting that by the 1730s and 40s, she had also become strongly associated with English patriotism: resistance to the Spanish Armada of 1588 seemed to be paralleled in the contemporary struggle against Spain in the War of Jenkins’ Ear (Gerrard 1994, 150–84) and such sentiments would have chimed with the Society’s founding principles of the celebration of British antiquities. Sir Robert Cotton’s inclusion is self-evident in terms of his role in the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries and as one of the most important collectors of medieval manuscripts of his day, as discussed in Crystal B. Lake’s essay. The three more recent portraits depicting key figures in the Society of Antiquaries – George Holmes, Thomas Tanner, and Charles Lyttelton (see the commentaries by Dustin Frazier Wood, Crystal B. Lake, and Benjamin Weichman) – were commissioned shortly after the deaths of their subjects. This commemorative function was clearly the basis for their inclusion, but other portraits of other antiquaries – also deceased – were presented at meetings and could have been selected. George Vertue, for example, presented a portrait of Humfrey Wanley, one of the founder members who had died in 1726, to the Society in 1755, shortly before his own death in 1756 (SAL Minutes VII.184). It is tempting to think that, had he lived longer, he might also have engraved Wanley’s portrait and it too might have featured in Vetusta Monumenta. Equally, some antiquaries were already the subject of portrait prints published elsewhere and which the Society would not have wanted to duplicate: Richard Rawlinson, for example, presented the Society with a portrait print of its former president, Sir Martin Folkes, in 1754 (SAL Minutes VII.141).

The mezzotint of Charles Lyttelton, published in 1770, was the last of the portrait prints. The Director, Richard Gough, had other priorities and under his aegis Vetusta Monumenta focused upon the illustration of medieval antiquities (Myrone 2007, 113–17). But perhaps also, once the Society had established itself in a permanent residence in Somerset House in 1781, where portraits could be hung on the walls, Fellows did not feel the need to create their institutional identity through the publication of engraved portraits. Nonetheless, the fact that – with respect to contemporary portraits – the Society chose to focus on antiquaries, as opposed to portraits of other notable or distinguished figures, is a clear indication that the portraits were intended to foster a sense of institutional identity. Historians have noted the fashion established in the early eighteenth century for portrait series, often by the same artist, of particular clubs and societies which were clearly intended to create a group identity, such as Kneller’s portraits of the Kit Kat Club by Kneller or George Knapton’s portraits of the members of the Society of Dilettanti (Redford 2008, 13–43). The portraits published by the Society – apart from those of Holmes and Tanner – did not share any common visual identity, unlike the Kit Kat Club or the Dilettanti portraits, but – like family portraits in the gallery of a country house – they did establish a sense of historical continuity and fulfilled one of the key responsibilities of the antiquary as it was understood at the time, which was to honour the memories of those who had gone before. Portrait prints were therefore valuable as “antiquities” but they were also a key element in the dissemination of a group or institutional identity particularly for associations with a dispersed membership.

Works Cited:

Ames, Joseph. 1748. A Catalogue of English Heads: or, an Account of about Two Thousand Prints, Describing What is Peculiar on Each. London: J. Robinson.

Clayton, Tim. 1997. The English Print, 1688–1802. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fenn, John. 1784. “An Index to the Prints Published by the Society of Antiquaries.” In Three Chronological Tables, Exhibiting a State of the Society of Antiquaries, 170–30. London: J. Nichols.

Gerrard, Christine. 1994. The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and Myth, 1725-1742. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lippincott, Louise. 1995. “Expanding on Portraiture. The Market, the Public and the Hierarchy of Genres in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” In The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800. Image, Object, Text, edited by Ann Bermingham and John Brewer, 75–88. London and New York: Routledge.

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

Nichols, John. 1812–15. Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, 6 volumes. London: J. Nichols.

Peltz, Lucy. 2016. Facing the Text: Extra-Illustration, Print Culture, and Society in Britain, 1769–1840. San Marino: Huntington Library Press.

Pointon, Marcia. 1993. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Redford, Bruce. 2008. Dilettanti. The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England. Los Angeles: Getty Publications.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.


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