Vetusta Monumenta is a miscellaneous series by any standard, presenting monuments that range in date from the second to the seventeenth century CE and in size from a half-groat to a castle. Martin Myrone has noted the positive and negative aspects of this enormous range: “Viewed as a serial publication, the Vetusta Monumenta was, depending on one’s point of view, enormously flexible and responsive … or simply incoherent” (2007, 103). This heterogeneity can be vexing to modern readers trained in more specialized disciplines, but it also facilitates a new kind of engagement with the cultural past: the antiquarian idea of antiquity was a capacious one, in some ways more so than ideas that are current today.
The remit of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) was originally defined as “Brittish Antiquitys” in the Articles of Incorporation drawn up by William Stukeley in 1717; to judge from Stukeley’s own contributions to Vetusta Monumenta, this field extended from the map of Roman Verulamium (Plate 1.7) to medieval built works such as the eleventh-century Bishop’s Chapel at Hereford (Plate 1.49) and Waltham Cross (Plate 1.8), erected in the late thirteenth century. When John Fenn classified the contents of the first two volumes of Vetusta Monumenta in 1784, he narrowed the field to pre-Conquest monuments, subdivided into British, Roman, Saxon, and Danish Antiquities, but then identified six additional categories of monuments, mainly medieval and post-medieval: II. Coins, Medals, and Seals; III. Castles, Palaces, Gates, Crosses; IV. Abbeys, Churches, [and related architectural features]; V. Portraits; VI. Historic Prints and Processions; VII. Plans, Maps, and Miscellaneous (Fenn 1784, 18).
I. Antiquities (British, Roman, Saxon, Danish):
All but two of the sixteen plates listed by Fenn in this category are dedicated to Roman Britain, though one of these has since been recognized as medieval (Plate 1.1). The only item under “British antiquities” is Plate 2.20, which features bronze instruments found in Ireland, along with an Iron Age shield from Shropshire. The item under Danish Antiquities is the “Horn of Ulf” engraved in 1718 (Plate 1.2). The first and only Saxon monument recorded in Vetusta Monumenta in the eighteenth century, Ruthwell Cross (Plates 2.54-2.55), was engraved in 1789, postdating Fenn’s index. The only other additions to the whole class of “antiquities” after Fenn are three more Roman mosaic pavements: Plates 2.43, 2.44, and 3.39. The overwhelming majority of the plates engraved after George Vertue’s death in 1756 (most of them by James Basire Sr) represent Gothic architecture, an emphasis which in turn demonstrates the influence of the medievalist Richard Gough, the director of the SAL during much of this time.
For more on engravings of Roman Britain, see “Vetusta Monumenta and Britain’s Classical Past,” written specially for this edition by Sarah Scott.
II. Coins, Medals, and Seals:
In the 1720s, members of the SAL began planning a history of British coinage, to be titled Metallographia Britannica, and subcommittees were appointed to supervise the recording of Roman, Saxon, Danish, and English coins. Like many early projects of the SAL, this one crumbled under the weight of its own ambition, but a number of side projects, including several plates in the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta, provide evidence of repeated attempts over about four decades. Crystal B. Lake and David Shields provide a detailed account of this attempted history of coinage in their commentaries on Plates 1.55, 1.56, and 1.69. Plate 1.56 concludes a four-part series of plates featuring coins (Plates 1.37-1.38, 1.43, and 1.56), and Plate 1.55 features a number of medals not otherwise accommodated by the series. Plate 1.20, engraved considerably earlier, was updated several times to reflect the progress of the Society’s efforts in this area. All these plates show medieval and early modern coins. Many Roman coins were exhibited at meetings of the SAL from the very beginning, but neither these nor the Saxon and Danish coins are visible in the print series.
Fenn’s index shows a more sustained engagement with seals, which are featured in each of the first three volumes. In addition to Plates 1.5, 1.28-1.33, 1.53-1.54, 1.58-60, 2.7, 2.19, and 2.36 (all listed by Fenn), seals are also featured on Plates 3.26-3.30. In addition, as noted by Fenn, facsimiles of certain documents are included at least in part because of the seals attached to them, including Plates 1.62, 2.4, and 2.6. George Vertue, who engraved all but two of the first 87 plates in the series, collected coins himself and used this subset of prints to make a study of arts historically related to his own art of copper engraving, including seal engraving and the even older art of creating the dies from which coins were struck.
For more on medieval seals and Vetusta Monumenta, see the “Introduction to Medieval Seals and the Growth of Sigillography,” written specially for this edition by Laura Whatley.
III. Castles, Palaces, Gates, and Crosses; IV. Abbeys; Churches and Chapels; Tombs and Shrines; Fonts and Windows:
It is less than clear why Fenn subdivided the architectural plates in Vetusta Monumenta in this particular way, though the large total number of architectural subjects certainly helps to account for these numerous subdivisions. As these subcategories suggest, a large majority of the subjects are medieval, ranging in date from the eleventh through the early fifteenth century. Some Tudor and Stuart monuments are also included, and the only font in Volume I is actually the most recent antiquity in the whole set, Grinling Gibbons’s marble font in St. James’s, Piccadilly (Plate 1.3). Three medieval fonts were engraved for the series by Basire in 1785 and 1793 (Plates 2.39-2.40 and 3.25).
Fully eight of the castles listed by Fenn were engraved by Vertue from Elizabethan drawings of castles from the office of the Duchy of Lancaster, all of which were in ruins or entirely destroyed before the eighteenth century. Only Colchester Castle (Plates 1.35-1.36) was depicted in its then-current state. Five plates of Hedingham Castle, Essex, were added in 1796 (Plates 3.40-3.44). The creators of the series turned more attention to palaces after 1750, including the Savoy (Plates 2.5, 2.12, and 2.14) and the royal palaces of Richmond (2.23-2.24), Placentia (2.25), and Hampton Court (2.27). Beaulieu or New Hall, Essex (2.41-2.42), was added in 1786. The subset of Gates and Crosses includes a mix of religious and secular built works, including the monumental St. Benet’s Abbey gate (1.13-1.14) and the Eleanor Cross at Waltham (1.7), on the one hand, and, on the other, two gates built by Henry VIII for Whitehall Palace (Plates 1.17-19), along with four market crosses (Plates 1.61, 1.64, 2.8, 2.10)—though of course the market cross presents a nexus of religious iconography and commercial space. Waltham Cross became the first and only monument to be engraved twice for Vetusta Monumenta, appearing for the second time in 1790 when Basire engraved it from a new drawing by Jacob Schnebbelie as part of a plate set comprising six of the Eleanor Crosses (Plates 3.12-3.17). Yet another cross engraved for the series was Ruthwell Cross (Plates 2.54-55), mentioned above as a “Saxon antiquity.”
The pairing of gates and crosses seems less intuitive than the pairing of castles and palaces, but since at least some monuments in each group are secular, the group as a whole may be distinguished from Fenn’s fourth class, which comprises only religious structures.
Fenn’s Class IV, with its seven subcategories, comprises the largest set of engravings on his list, including twenty-four plates dedicated to fourteen monuments. The largest plate set in the group and in the whole series (Plates 2.29-2.35) features seven plates of funerary monuments in Westminster Abbey, in which the interest in abbeys converges with the interest in tombs and shrines. The engravings by Basire are based on preparatory drawings traditionally attributed to his apprentice William Blake, though that attribution is now in doubt. Another monument in Westminster Abbey, the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, had been published quite early in the series (Plate 1.16). Sepulchral monuments, as Gough called them in the title of a large work he published under his own name (1786-96), became a special focus for the series in the 1780s, with engravings of three massive monuments in Winchester Cathedral, the monument of Edward IV at Windsor Castle, and others. Walsingham, Fountains, and Furness Abbeys, “majestic though in ruin,” were all featured in Volume I, along with the newly demolished chapel at the Bishop’s Palace in Hereford. The subcategories of fonts and windows are represented by only one monument each on Fenn’s list, though three more fonts were added later, as already mentioned; the east window of St. Margaret’s, Westminster remains the only window, though of course windows appear in many of the plates of churches in Volumes II-III—seven all told, ranging in size from Magdalen Chapel, Winchester to Lincoln Minster (other cathedrals were engraved for the separate cathedral series launched by the SAL in the 1790s). No other abbeys are featured in Volumes II-III, however.
Fenn’s admittedly capacious list of religious structures points toward a powerful interest in medieval ecclesiastical architecture that would only increase in the last two decades on the eighteenth century.
Fenn includes eight portraits in his list, but not all of these are ancient. In the commentaries in this edition there is a special focus on the portraits of modern antiquaries (Plates 1.45, 1.66, 2.3, and 2.28), which Fenn groups somewhat incongruously with historic portraits of Richard II (Plate 1.4) and the twelfth-century monk Eadwin of Canterbury (Plate 2.16). The portraits of antiquaries are of particular interest here because collectively they tell a story about the history of antiquarianism, linking the eighteenth-century SAL genealogically to the Elizabeth Society of Antiquaries by including Robert Cotton (1571-1631) along with the eighteenth-century antiquaries Thomas Tanner, George Holmes, and Charles Lyttelton (all of whom are honored by engraved portraits in the series shortly after their deaths). Intriguingly, Fenn also includes the two portrait medals of Queen Elizabeth (Plate 1.20) in this category, along with a whole series of portraits by Vertue that were reissued separately from Vetusta Monumenta. Lyttelton’s portrait in 1770 was the last to appear in the series itself.
VI. Historic Prints and Processions:
Only one entry from Vetusta Monumenta appears under this heading in Fenn’s list, the plate set devoted to Henry VIII’s Westminster Tournament Roll of 1510 (Plates 1.21-1.26). As Crystal B. Lake shows in her commentary on that plate set, Vertue is equally concerned to document the medial form of these images, the spectacularly long vellum roll painted with colorful chivalric figures, a virtual procession to rival the tournament itself. Although it does not apply broadly to Vetusta Monumenta, Fenn’s classification remains useful because it places this series in the context of another important publication series of the SAL, the Historical Prints series that ran from 1774-1781, in which Basire’s engraving of the “Field of the Cloth of Gold” is perhaps the most famous entry.
VII. Plans, Maps, and Miscellaneous Prints:
It might be said that Fenn ran out of steam at this point in his classification project, or perhaps the final “Miscellaneous” grouping (VII.2) had to be created for those five plates that just wouldn’t fit anywhere else. Volume I, in fact, includes two maps of Roman Britain: both Stukeley’s map of Verulamium (Plate 1.8) and Francis Drake’s Plan of the Roman Roads in Yorkshire (Plate 1.47), which is (oddly) overlooked by Fenn. The two plan plates listed by Fenn—a plan of the Tower Liberties from 1597 (Plate 1.63) and three plans for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666 (Plates 2.1-2.2)—are both quite modern and are quite similar in style and approach.
Fenn’s “miscellaneous” antiquities—an arbitrary and incomplete subset, but nonetheless indicative—comprise fragments of the Cotton Genesis MS after it was decimated by the Cotton Library fire of 1731 (1.67-1.68); the exechequer’s Standard of Weights and Measures, an exquisitely illuminated black-letter manuscript from the reign of Henry VII (Plate 1.69); two medieval bronze bells, which even to Fenn do not seem to fit with the Roman bronze objects with which Vertue grouped them (Plate 2.17); a medieval mantelpiece from Saffron Waldon (2.19); and curiously, the 1747 title page and catalogue from Volume I of Vetusta Monumenta itself.
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, 17-30. London: J. Nichols.
Gough, Richard. 1786-1796. Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain. London: J. Nichols.
Myrone, Martin. “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.
Stukeley, William. 1717. “Articles of Incorporation.” Society of Antiquaries of London, Manuscripts MS 265. [SAL Minutes, Vol. 1].
This page references:
- Plate 1.3: Engraving of the Baptismal Font at St. James's, Piccadilly
- Plate 1.69: Engraving of a Standard of Weights and Measures, 1497
- Plate 1.8: Engraving of a Plan of Ancient Verulamium
- Plate 1.35: Engravings of Colchester Castle (1 of 2)
- Plate 1.45: Engraving of a Portrait of Thomas Tanner
- Plate 1.23: Engravings of the Westminster Tournament Roll (3 of 6)
- Plate 1.55: Engraving of Stuart Medals