Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.45: Portrait of Thomas Tanner

Plate: Plate 1.45 is a portrait of Thomas Tanner, Bishop of St Asaph (1674-1735): an important figure in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century antiquarian circles who was well-respected for his bibliographical research as well as his history of England’s monasteries. Based on a painting of Tanner by an unknown artist, Plate 1.45 was engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) in 1735, shortly after Tanner’s death, and it marks the first of four honorary portraits of modern antiquaries that would appear in Vetusta Monumenta (see also Plates 1.66, 2.3, and 2.28). Vertue was paid £20 for his work on the Tanner portrait, and 500 impressions of the engraving were printed on high-quality paper (Alexander 2008, 347). The Minute Books of the Society of Antiquaries of London report that Tanner’s relatives had learned of the engraving by December 1736, and Tanner’s brother and son offered 10 guineas for six dozen copies of the print (SAL Minutes II.266). Vertue later updated the portrait; a smaller version with new ornaments was included as the frontispiece of Tanner’s posthumously-published revised edition of Notitia Monastica (1744). David Alexander suggests that this engraving is similar in style to one that Vertue prepared for a portrait of John Potter, the Bishop of Oxford, in 1738 (2008, 347).

Object: Plate 2.45 is based on a painting of Tanner by an unknown artist; the original painting (c. 1731) was displayed in Christ Church, and a copy of the painting remains in All Soul's College, Oxford. The copy of the portrait served as the basis for Vertue's engraving. Vertue copied Tanner’s portrait from the chest up, delineated his robes with straighter lines, and opened Tanner’s countenance by turning Tanner’s face and eyes to look directly at the viewer. Vertue also enhanced the portrait by adding a decorative frame and pedestal featuring episcopal symbols. Four books representing Tanner’s antiquarian research crowd into the bottom left corner of the engraving. One is marked with John Leland’s (c. 1503-1552) name; another is attributed to Boston Buriensis; a third is Tanner’s own Notitia Monastica (1695); the fourth book is unnamed. The Society of Antiquaries of London’s emblematic lamp burns bright in the lower right corner (see also Plate 1.1).


Reverendus admodum THOMAS TANNER Asaphensis Episcopus / Primævæ Antiquitatis Cultor / Hoc Ectypum Fratris sui Dignissimi Antiquis Moribus & Literis Ornati Posteris Sacratum esse voluit. / Soc: Ant: Lond. 1736.


The Most Reverend Thomas Tanner, Bishop of St. Asaph’s, Cultivator of Primeval Antiquity. The Society of Antiquaries of London wanted this engraving of its most honorable brother, [a man] adorned by ancient culture and literature, to be dedicated to posterity.

Commentary by Crystal B. Lake and Benjamin Wiechmann: Plate 1.45 is the first memorial portrait to appear in Vetusta Monumenta, and it honors the recently-deceased antiquary Thomas Tanner (see also Plates 1.66, 2.3, and 2.28). Tanner was well-known for his research on English authors, especially medieval chroniclers, monastic libraries, and the history of monasteries. As David C. Douglas wrote in his famous English Scholars, Tanner has been less well-known than other antiquaries in the twentieth century because he “lacked the colourful personality of many of his contemporaries” (Douglas 1939, 199). By most accounts, Tanner was an affable and indefatigable antiquary who laboriously compiled his own research throughout his lifetime and assisted others with theirs. Douglas insists that “[f]ew scholars, themselves distinguished, have had a larger anonymous share in the books of other men” than Tanner (Douglas 1939, 200-1).

As the first of four commemorative portraits of modern antiquaries that appear in Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.45 begins a project of establishing an institutional history for eighteenth-century antiquarianism. Only the first three portraits were engraved by George Vertue, but collectively, the four portraits that appear in Vetusta Monumenta offer a multi-faceted glimpse of both the types of individuals who were antiquaries and the types of research that antiquaries conducted. The portrait of Tanner commemorates an antiquary who diligently preserved, compiled, and added to the work of previous antiquaries and embraced a spirit of collaborative generosity in his own research endeavors, which straddled the antiquaries’ interests in the medieval as well as the classical past.

Born in 1674, Tanner was the oldest son of a vicar. After being schooled at home and then at Salisbury Free School, Tanner distinguished himself as a student at Oxford where he met a convivial group of scholars who were interested in medieval history. Tanner helped Edmund Gibson (1669-1748) prepare a new edition of William Camden’s (1551-1623) Britannia (1695). Tanner himself began working on a new and improved edition of George Hegge’s The Legend of St Cuthbert (1663) as well as a county history of Wiltshire. Tanner never completed his edition of The Legend of St Cuthbert or his proposed history of Wiltshire in part because his research led him to begin writing a short history of English monasteries based on William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) and preparing an edition of John Leland’s 1546 manuscript, De Viris Illustribus. The first of these was published in 1695 as Tanner’s Notitia Monastica to critical acclaim, and Tanner was given the chaplaincy and elected as a fellow of All Souls.

At Oxford, Tanner’s interest in Wiltshire brought him into contact with John Aubrey (1626-1697) as well as with Aubrey’s sometime-collaborator, Anthony Wood (1632-1695). In 1698, Tanner was made chaplain to John Moore, the bishop of Norwich. On the trek to Norwich, the barge with Tanner’s private reference library sank; some but not all of the papers, books, and manuscripts were recovered a day later (Sharpe 2006). Tanner’s star continued to rise in the church. In 1713, he was given a canonry in the Ely Cathedral. Tanner returned to Oxford in 1724 and held various positions in Christ Church; when he was consecrated as the bishop of St Asaph in 1732, Tanner was already ill, and he died in Oxford in 1735.

Tanner’s career as a churchman, especially his time spent away from Oxford, often interrupted his antiquarian projects (Sweet 2004, 55). Nevertheless, Tanner remained well known as a careful, diligent, and likable antiquary. During the 1720s when the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) struggled to find a regular meeting place and to establish itself as a respectable learned society, William Nicolson (1655-1727) especially admired Tanner’s jovial enthusiasm in the face of internecine conflicts. Other members of the fledging SAL were unwilling, for example, to hold their meetings at the affordable but rowdy Mitre Tavern, but Tanner was happy to meet anywhere, anytime. Nicholson reports that Tanner “was with us in all places being a great friend to Antiquities, and ventur’d to put his Mitred head into the Mitre Tavern which others pretended some excuse to avoid” (quoted in Evans 1956, 83).

In his scholarship, Tanner was also eager to avoid conflicts. Impressed with Tanner’s scholarship at Oxford, Wood gave Tanner the materials he had gathered for an expanded edition of his Athenae Oxonienses (1691-1692), a biographical dictionary of Oxford luminaries; on his deathbed in 1695, Wood tasked Tanner with completing that project. Tanner accepted the charge but dragged his feet. He knew that the first two volumes of the Athenae Oxonienses had stirred up controversy when still-living subjects of Wood’s work found themselves described in less-than-flattering terms. Tanner was criticized for his “caution,” and when Tanner’s edition of the Athenae Oxonienses eventually came out in 1721 featuring an additional 500 biographical entries, many suspected that Tanner had significantly revised Wood’s manuscript draft by tempering his tone and excising potentially offensive material; Hearne—who otherwise had a lot of affection for Tanner—said it was a “spurious edition” (Sharpe 2006).

Throughout his life, Tanner primarily devoted himself to two projects: gathering materials that he planned to use to update and greatly expand his Notitia Monastica and preparing his Bibliotheca Britannica (1748). The Notitia Monastica aspired to be a comprehensive history of Britain’s monasteries. The Bibliotheca Britannica aspired to be a comprehensive catalogue of British authors and was based largely on medieval and early modern catalogues of monastic libraries. Tanner did not manage to see his revised Notitia Monastica or the Bibliotheca Britannica through to publication in his lifetime. Both were published posthumously—the former in 1744 and the latter in 1748—and they remained celebrated, standard works of scholarship for more than a century.

As M. J. Sommerlad explains, Tanner’s reputation for the work he was undertaking on the history of monasteries and of British authors was well-known and well-respected during his lifetime (1962, v). The stack of books in the bottom left corner of the Vetusta Monumenta print honors Tanner’s work on British monasteries and authors. The books, along with a pile of papers and seals, represent a tradition of antiquarian scholarship that Tanner preserved and extended. The seals likely allude to Tanner’s presentation of four seals at a meeting of the SAL in March 1721 (SAL Minutes I.44), which Vertue was then ordered to engrave, and they probably comprise the two prints depicting “four mutilated seals” that Vertue completed in 1721 at the request of Peter Le Neve (1661-1729) (Alexander 2008, 293). A brief mention in Tanner’s correspondence with Le Neve, President of the SAL from 1707-1710 and again from 1717-1724, suggests that Tanner was engaged, like other members of the SAL at the time, with the study of seals: an interest that would have readily arisen as a consequence of his studies of medieval manuscripts and the history of monasteries. It may be that Tanner—who was a canon at Ely Cathedral from 1713-1724—provided drawings, an impression, or even a matrix for the Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely that was engraved c. 1719 and incorporated into Plate 1.5 of Vetusta Monumenta. In September of 1722, Tanner thanked Le Neve (with whom Tanner often exchanged research notes and resources) “for [the] Seals” that Le Neve had sent him. Tanner also quickly quipped that, in his opinion, “our old Ely seal would make a better cut than the Norwich one;” the Norwich seal may have been one of the four seals Tanner presented to the SAL in March 1721 (quoted in Nichols 1817-1858, 3.428). The SAL had also, however, examined a Norwich seal in September 1719 (SAL Minutes I.24).

Underneath the seals appear three books. The first book, marked on the fore-edge with “Leland,” refers to Tanner’s lifelong work on Leland’s 1546 manuscript, De viris illustribus (On Famous Men). Leland’s De viris illustribus was part of the Collectanea he presented to Henry VIII as a New Year’s gift, and it was a catalogue of known manuscripts from the monastic libraries that Henry VIII had dissolved. Leland’s catalogue was never printed, but two catalogues were published shortly after it and partly based on it: one prepared by John Bale and another prepared by John Pits. Both Bale’s and Pits’s catalogues were well-known to have been polemical; by excising certain authors and making claims for attribution, Bale and Pits used monastic bibliography as a means of promoting their Protestant and Catholic interests, respectively (Douglas 1939, 198). When Gibson introduced Tanner to Leland’s manuscripts in 1693, everyone agreed that Leland’s manuscript should be published because it provided a neutral source-text. Tanner originally planned to prepare a simple “bare printing” of Leland’s De viris illustribus alongside various other catalogues of monastic libraries—both those which had been published after Leland prepared his, including not only that of Bale and Pits but also that of William Cave, and another catalogue that had preceded Leland’s: that of a monk known as Bostonus Buriensis or John Boston of Bury (Sharpe 2006).

Thus, the second book in the stack of books in the lower left-hand corner of the print is labeled “BOSTON BVRIENSIS” in recognition of Tanner’s plan. Richard H. Rouse has identified Bostonus Buriensis as Henry Kirkestede (c. 1314-1378), a Benedictine monk in the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds. In the fourteenth century, Kirkestede prepared the Catalogus scriptorium ecclesie, “a substantial bibliography of ecclesiastic writers and their works” based on a variety of sources as well as on material that was available in the monastic library at Bury St Edmunds (Rouse 2004 ). Kirkestede’s catalogue included the titles of works, brief biographies of their writers, the first and last words of texts, and the location of the manuscripts in various monastic libraries. Bale had snatched up the Catalogus after the dissolution of the monastery and included excerpts from it in his own catalogue that had also referenced Leland’s work. Tanner acquired the manuscript of the Catalogus from Thomas Gale (1635/6-1702) and, luckily, transcribed it. Kirkestede’s manuscript has since been lost (Rouse 2004).

If a “bare printing” of Leland’s catalogue among the others wasn’t already a daunting project to undertake, Tanner also decided to update all of the catalogues while collating them for publication. Once he discovered that Leland “had entirely omitted above 2000 British Writers” among other errors, Tanner decided that he would supplement the catalogues by “add[ing] such new Authors and writings as later searches of Libraries have discovered” (quoted in Douglas 1939, 205). This project would become Tanner’s life’s work, but he would not live to see it in print. It was published posthumously by David Wilkins in 1748 as the Bibliotheca Britannica, and it has since remained a monumental standard reference work, especially for research on medieval chronicles (Douglas 1939, 207).

The third book that Vertue includes in the lower left-hand corner is Tanner’s own Notitia Monastica, an extensively updated version of William Dugdale’s Monasticon Anglicanum (1655–73). Tanner first published this work in 1695, but throughout his life he also continued to develop a much-expanded and corrected edition until the work described in comprehensive and accurate detail “the original, progress, and increase of monasteries in England and Wales,” the “different orders of monks, nuns, and friers [sic],” the “difference[s] of abbies [sic], priories, etc. of the officers in those houses; and something of the benefit and disadvantage of them to the nation,” and “the dissolution of these religious societies” (Tanner 1744, i). Tanner also did not live to see the updated version of the Notitia in print, but his brother completed the revisions and published it with William Bowyer (1699-1777) in 1744. A version of Vertue’s engraved portrait of Tanner was used as the frontispiece.

Joan Evans situates the portrait of Tanner, which features another rendering of the lamp depicted on Plate 1.1, in the context of a return to “classical fashion” among members of the SAL in the 1720s (1956, 117). Following the series of engravings that depict the drawings of medieval castles that were discovered in the Office of the Duchy of Lancaster (Plates 1.39, 1.40, 1.41, 1.42, and 1.44) Tanner’s portrait preceded the engravings of Roman Roads (Plate 1.47), mosaics (Plates 1.48 and 1.50-1.52), and hypocaust (Plate 1.57) that would soon follow. Tanner’s own work, however, straddled an interest in medieval architecture and classical learning. He devoted most of his life to compiling information about England’s medieval history, but his Bibliotheca increasingly transformed into a dictionary of English authors writing in Latin (Davies 1935, 856). According to Rosemary Sweet, the work done by Gibson and Tanner on the revision of Camden’s Britannia stimulated inquiries into Roman antiquities while it also had a “similarly galvanizing effect upon the study of ancient British antiquities” (2004, 125).

Vertue’s engraving, which is based on a painting of Tanner at All Souls, Oxford, delicately crops Tanner’s famously corpulent body, straightens his robes, redirects his gaze so that he looks directly at the viewer, and lightens the expression on his face into a half smile. In so doing, Vertue captures Tanner’s well-known affability and spirit of generosity. Tanner was well liked by other antiquaries, and he shared his own research and assisted in theirs. By including the seal of St Etheldreda and three others alongside books stamped with Leland’s and Boston Buriensis’s names, Vertue set Tanner’s own antiquarian research within a tradition of research that dutifully built on and continued work that had been previously and laboriously completed. Vertue’s decorative border appears like a tomb sculpture translated into print, and the same convention may be observed in many of the portrait prints he engraved—such as those for Paul de Rapin's History of England (Tindal 1725-31). Here, the lamp is an apt image to include in the righthand corner. On the one hand, it symbolizes Tanner’s own lifelong commitment to continuing the work that had been done before him and bridging, in many ways, the divide between classical and medieval scholarship. On the other hand, the lamp is an apt tribute to Tanner himself—a recently-deceased and well-liked “brother” antiquary who was there for the Society’s revival in the 1720s—and whose own research would go on, in fact, to be celebrated after his death.

Works Cited: 

Alexander, David. 2008. “George Vertue as an Engraver.” The Volume of the Walpole Society 70: 207-517.

Davies, William T. 1935. “Thomas Tanner and His ‘Bibliotheca.” Times Literary Supplement Dec. 14: 856.

Douglas, David C. 1939. English Scholars. London: Jonathan Cape.

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

Nichols, John. 1817-1858. Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century. 8 vols. London: Nichols, Son and Bentley.

Rouse, Richard H. 2004. “Kirkestede, Henry.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sharpe, Richard. 2006. “Tanner, Thomas (1674-1735).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Sommerlad, Michael John. 1962. “The Historical and Antiquarian Interests of Thomas Tanner, 1674-1735, Bishop of St. Asaph.” Dissertation, University of Oxford.

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

Tanner, Thomas. 1744. Notitia Monastica. Edited by John Tanner. London: William Boyer.

Tindal, N. 1725-1731. The History of England. Written in French by Mr. De Rapin Thoyras. Done into English, with Additional Notes. London: Printed for James and John Knapton.

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