Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 2.3: Portrait of George Holmes

Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) in 1749 after an original portrait attributed to Richard van Bleeck that was probably painted between 1731 and 1733.

Object: The painting on which Vertue based his engraving was in the possession of Holmes’ widow at the time of his death. It later passed to Holmes’ friend, the art collector and antiquary James West (1703-1772), who presented it to the Society in 1766. The painting, which measures 535 by 477mm, now hangs in the Society’s Fellows Room in an ebonised frame that is probably contemporary or near contemporary with its donation.

Transcription: Vera effigies GEORGII HOLMES generosi, R.S.S. et tabularii publici in Turre Londinensi VICECVSTODIS; quo munere annos circiter LX summa fide et diligentia perfunctus, XIV kalend. Mart. A.D. MDCCXLVIII, aetatis suae LXXXVII, fato demum concessit. In FRATRIS sui erga se meritorum testimonium, hanc tabulam SOCIETAS ANTIQVARIORVM Londini, cujus commoda studiosissime semper promovit, sumptu suo aeri incidendam curavit, MDCCXLIX.

Translation: The true likeness of George Holmes gentleman, R.S.S. [Royal Society Socius] and vice-custodian [i.e., deputy keeper] of the public records in the Tower of London; who performed this duty with full faith and diligence for nearly 60 years, who relinquished this life on the 16th of February [lit., ‘fourteen days before the kalends of March’] 1748, in the 87th year of his age. In testimony of the merit of their brother the Society of Antiquaries of London, whose interest he has always most studiously advanced, paid for this engraving to be made at their own expense in 1749.

Commentary by Dustin Frazier Wood: This memorial plate celebrates George Holmes, a member of the circle of antiquaries who met in London taverns beginning in the 1690s, when Holmes came to London from Yorkshire as clerk to William Petyt, Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London. Holmes attended meetings of the nascent Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) at the Young Devil Tavern in Fleet Street in January 1708. Just a few months earlier his "singular abilities and industry" had led to his being appointed to “methodize and digest the records deposited in the Tower” at a yearly salary of £200 (Nichols 1812, 5.353). Until his death in 1749 Holmes would devote the vast majority of his personal and professional energies to antiquarian pursuits related to the archival material held at the Tower, most notably preparing the second edition of Thomas Rymer’s Fœdera for publication by Jacob Tonson and laying the groundwork for what would become the Rotuli Parliamentorum (Condon and Hallam 1984, 351, 359-62).

According to the Society’s minutes, on 6 July 1749 Joseph Ames showed a miniature of the recently deceased Holmes that had been lent by Holmes’ widow, Elizabeth, who offered to allow the Society to make a print from the miniature and a portrait also in her possession. One week later “A Ballot was made whether the Society would be at the expence to have a print made from the paintings of Mr. George Holmes . . . and it passed in the affirmative. The pictures being sent, were deliver’d to Mr. Vertue” (SAL Minutes V.214). On 31 May 1750, Vertue delivered the finished prints. To commemorate one of the Society’s founder members, Vertue employed a composite style developed for the wider print market in such projects as his illustrations for the second English edition of Paul Rapin’s History of England, published by John and Paul Knapton in 1732. In these portrait prints Vertue depicted a single individual surrounded by objects symbolic of that person’s intellectual and professional work, imaginative representations of representative or well-known events from his life, and decorative framing elements in a more or less traditional rococo style. Although this plate shares certain stylistic features with the two other portrait prints that Vertue engraved for Vetusta Monumenta (Thomas Tanner, Plate 1.45, and Sir Robert Cotton, Plate 1.66), the combination of symbolic, imaginative and decorative elements renders it the most lively and intimate of the three.

Vertue’s portrait print places Holmes at the literal and figurative centre of the Tower of London record office. The print presents an updated version of an earlier oil painting by Richard van Bleeck that is likely to have been painted to mark Holmes’ official appointment as Deputy Keeper and Barrack-master of the Tower in 1731. Most notable among the differences between the two images is Vertue’s depiction of an older, more sober (but equally keen-eyed) Holmes than the middle-aged figure of van Bleeck’s brightly coloured portrait. Vertue also omits the ribbon in Holmes’ peruke for a more sedate style, extends Holmes’ torso, and adds a spray of white flowers to the left breast of Holmes’ jacket. Vertue’s line engraving is a testimony to his skill as an artist and perhaps also to his fondness for Holmes, whose features are delineated with precision and subtlety that give the plate a sense of immediacy and vitality. The portrait appears in an oval frame with a rococo ornament over a laurel wreath, perhaps intended to suggest Holmes’s literary achievements as an editor and historian. A smaller oval containing Holmes’s coat of arms - a chevron and three chaplets—a chevron and three chaplets—in a border of shells and garlands mirrors the shape and framing of the portrait itself (BL Add MS 5853, 494).

The larger frame stands on a shelf littered with objects that symbolize Holmes’ interests and achievements. Bound volumes, rolls and documents bearing wax pendant seals represent the types of material Holmes curated and collected, and the sources he employed in his edition of Fœdera (perhaps the two decoratively-bound volumes below the shelf in the lower right corner) and his notes on the Parliament Rolls that would later serve as the basis of Rotuli Parliamentorum (BL Add MSS 4633-37). These were also the types of antiquities Holmes brought most frequently to meetings of the SAL. Although none of the documents contains enough detail to be identified specifically, their forms and the decorated initials in the open book on the lower right-hand side of the shelf suggest England’s medieval past, the period in which Holmes specialized.

From left to right along the shelf appear objects related to Holmes’ wider interests. A Roman oil lamp and a bust probably allude to the Roman antiquities in Holmes’ personal collection, which included a marble head of Marcus Aurelius echoed in the small portrait bust (SAL Minutes I.14, 54, 293). Slightly farther to the right, coins spill out from beneath a book. Holmes first showed Dutch medals to a gathering of antiquaries in the 1690s, and brought “several Saxon Coyns [of] Cnut, Etheldred, Offa, Eadmund &c” to a meeting of the Society on 29 November 1721 (SAL Minutes I.49). In January 1722 he volunteered to catalogue the Anglo-Saxon coins in the collection of Mr Hill as part of a larger, ultimately abortive project to create a complete history of British coinage (SAL Minutes I.53). Holmes showed coins on several later occasions and developed a collection that his widow sold for £200 at an auction in December 1749 (Nichols 1812, 5.354; Langford 1749).

Surviving documentary evidence does not explain the inclusion of the climbing vine at far left, the small potted plant near the coins, or the shells on the right end of the shelf. These items probably represent Holmes’ fellowship in the Royal Society, to which he was elected in 1741 but with which he seems to have had little active involvement, being recorded as present on only two occasions in the course of eight years (Royal Society MSS CMO/4/1; EC/1741/07; JBO XVIII, 252). Shells were a common part of many eighteenth-century gentlemanly collections and were frequently traded between collectors as a kind of polite or curious currency. If the plants are not merely decorative touches, they could also represent that genteel blending of antiquarian and natural philosophical interests common to Holmes and the many other members of the Society of Antiquaries who were also fellows of the Royal Society and who, like Holmes’s friend James West, attended both meetings on the same night each week (Sweet 2004, 8).

In the top half of the print Holmes’s portrait appears superimposed over a round tower that recalls the Wakefield Tower, in the largest room of which the rolls of kings John, Henry III, Edward I, II and III, Richard II, Henry IV, V and VI, and Edward IV were kept in presses that Holmes “caused to be covered with Lead to preserve them from Dampness and Wet” (Holmes 1731, 519). (The “rolls” stored in the presses that Holmes had waterproofed are financial records, so-called on account of their being stitched together and stored tightly rolled.) At the bottom of the print, an imagined scene reminiscent of those in Vertue’s prints for Rapin’s History depicts Holmes in a room much like this one, reaching for a manuscript from a press while bound volumes and loose manuscripts appear piled on and beside a table behind him. This miniaturized image of the solitary scholar-archivist at work, glimpsed in a moment of search or discovery, captures Holmes as seen through the eyes of his peers and friends who memorialized him in Vetusta Monumenta.

Holmes’s residence in London allowed him to attend meetings of the SAL on a regular basis. He became the Society’s de facto librarian on 5 February 1718 and its first vice-president on 12 June of the same year (SAL Minutes I.14). Later in his life he was often “in the chair” in the absence of elected officers. As the inscription on the bottom of the print indicates, contemporaries held Holmes in high regard: the inscription refers to fellows of the Society as Holmes’s brothers (fratris) and praises Holmes for championing their activities “most studiously” (studiosissime). Holmes seems to have been an affable, friendly, helpful character. Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) noted that on his first introduction to Holmes in 1698, the latter “was pleas’d to entertain so good an opinion of me at first sight, that he would needs have me dine with him” (Heyworth 1989, 90). Fellow antiquaries—including Smart Lethieullier (1701-1760), Browne Willis (1682-1760), D’Bloissiers Tovey, and William Richardson—praised his willingness to undertake careful and exhaustive research on their behalf. Writing after the publication of this print, John Nichols wrote that Holmes deserved the praise heaped on him in the inscription, “for no man ever was more able or more willing to serve all who applied to him” (BL Add MS 6183, 42-44; Nichols 1812, 5.354).

Works Cited:

Condon, M. M., and Elizabeth M. Hallam. 1984. “Government Printing of the Public Records in the Eighteenth Century.” Journal of the Society of Archivists 7, no. 6: 348-88.

Copy, corrected for the press, of the "Rotuli Parliamentorum." Additional MSS 4633-7. British Library, London.

Election Ballot for George Holmes. 12 November 1741. MS EC/1741/07. Royal Society, London.

Heyworth, P. L. 1989. The Letters of Humfrey Wanley: Palaeographer, Anglo-Saxonist, Librarian, 1672-1726. Oxford: Clarendon.

Holmes, George. 1731. “Mr. Holmes’s Report Concerning the Records in the Tower.” In Reports from Committees of the House of Commons, Vol. I. Miscellaneous Subjects: 1715-1735, 519. London: House of Commons.

Journal Book 18. MS JBO XVIII. Royal Society, London.

Langford, Abraham. 1749. A Catalogue of the Collections of Greek, Roman, and English Coins, Medals and Medallions, And other Effects of George Holmes, Esq. London: Abraham Langford.

Letters to Mr. Strype Vol. LII. Bequeathed by Rev. W. Cole. Additional MS 5853. British Library, London.

Minutes of a Meeting of the Council of the Royal Society. 6 January 1748. MS CMO/4/1. Royal Society, London.

Nichols, John. 1812. Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century. 6 vols. London: Nichols, Son, and Bentley.

Papers Communicated to the Society of Antiquaries. Additional MS 6183. British Library, London.

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

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

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