Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 2.29-2.35: Three Monuments in Westminster Abbey

Plates: This series of seven plates depicts three monuments located within Westminster Abbey: those to Aveline, Countess of Lancaster (d. 1274); King Sebert, the abbey’s legendary founder (d. 616); and Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII (1515-57). They were engraved by James Basire, Sr. (1730-1802), from nine drawings made in 1778 by himself or possibly by his apprentice William Blake (1757-1827), three using pen and sepia wash and the rest highly colored in watercolor and gold. These drawings were commissioned by Sir Joseph Ayloffe (1708-81), who presented them together with a paper on the monuments at several meetings of the Society of Antiquaries of London in March 1778. The Society’s Council decided to publish the paper with illustrations on 22 May, and Basire was paid to begin the engraving work on 8 July. He presented the proofs in April 1780, with the plates bearing a publication date of 23 April 1780. These engravings were first published as a separate pamphlet in 1780 (Plates I-VII) and then bound in with the second volume of Vetusta Monumenta in 1789 (as reproduced here). Both versions are accompanied by Ayloffe’s lengthy letterpress account of the monuments. This plate set is especially notable for initiating a revival of Vetusta Monumenta, which had been dormant since the publication of Plate 2.27 in 1770; sixty-four more prints were issued during the seventeen years of Richard Gough’s tenure as Director of the Society of Antiquaries, from 1771-91.


1. The late-thirteenth-century monument to Aveline, Countess of Lancaster (d. 1274), on the north side of the High Altar at Westminster Abbey. The section at the top shown as missing on the engraving has since been replaced.

2. The cumbent figure of Aveline, as seen on the monument to her at Westminster Abbey, viewed from above.

3. Four details from the monument to Aveline at Westminster Abbey. They are: (a) the undervaulting from the monument’s canopy, (b) an acanthus from the front of the canopy, (c) a painting from compartment over the top of the canopy, and (d) an ornament on the spandrels of the canopy pediment.

4. The wooden sedilia situated on the supposed tomb of Sebert, the legendary seventh-century founder of the abbey, reburied there c. 1307, on the south side of the High Altar at Westminster Abbey.

5. The two surviving paintings on the north front of the sedilia shown in detail, generally accepted to represent King Sebert on the left and Henry III (who remodelled the abbey church in 1269) on the right.

6. Details from the north front of Sebert's monument, including three carved heads and part of the vaulting (a lozenge), and several details from the two paintings: both crowns and the heads of both sceptres along with three details from the robes (Butlin 1981, 5).

7. The monument to Anne of Cleves (d. 1557), the fourth wife of Henry VIII, on the south side of the High Altar at Westminster Abbey, designed by Theodore Haveus but left unfinished.


Plate 2.29, Top: PLATE I.

Plate 2.29, Caption: The front of the Monument of AVELINE, FIRST WIFE OF EDMUND CROUCHBACK, EARL OF LANCASTER, on the North Side of the Altar in Westminster Abbey

Plate 2.29, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini /Publishd as the Act directs, April 23, 1780. / J. Basire del et Sc.

Plate 2.30, Top: PLATE II.

Plate 2.30, Caption: The figure of AVELINE COUNTESS OF LANCASTER, cumbent on her Monument on the North Side of the Altar in Westminster Abbey.

Plate 2.30, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini / Publish’d as the Act directs, April 23, 1780. / J. Basire del. et Sc.

Plate 2.31, Top: PLATE III

Plate 2.31, Caption A: A. The UNDER VAULTING of one side the Canopy of the Monument of AVELINE COUNTESS OF LANCASTER.

Plate 2.31, Caption B: B. ACANTHUS on the front of the Canopy of the same Monument.

Plate 2.31, Caption C: C. PAINTING on the Compartment over the top of the same Canopy.

Plate 2.31, Caption D: D. ORNAMENT on the Spandrels in the pediment of the Canopy

Plate 2.31, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini MDCCLXXX. / Publish’d as the Act directs April 23. 1780. / J. Basire del. et Sc.

Plate 2.32, Top: PLATE IV.

Plate 2.32, Caption: The North front of the Monument of KING SEBERT, on the South Side of the Altar in Westminster Abbey.

Plate 2.32, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini / Publish’d as the Act directs April 23. 1780. / J. Basire del. et Sc.

Plate 2.33, Top: PLATE V.

Plate 2.33, Caption: The figures supposed to be those of KING SEBERT (1) and KING HENRY III. (2) as painted on the North front of the Monument of King Sebert in Westminster Abbey

Plate 2.33, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini MDCCLXXX. / Publish’d as the Act directs April 23. 1780. / J. Basire del. et Sc.

Plate 2.34, Top: PLATE VI.

Plate 2.34, Caption: HEADS & ORNAMENTS on the North Side of the Monument of KING SEBERT, in Westminster Abbey

Plate 2.34, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini MDCCLXXX. / Publish’d as the Act directs April 23. 1780. / J Basire del. et Sc.

Plate 2.35, Top: PLATE VII.

Plate 2.35, Caption: The Monument of ANN OF CLEVES, FOURTH WIFE OF KING HENRY VIII, on the South Side of the Altar in Westminster Abbey.

Plate 2.35, Bottom: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar Londini MDCCLXXX. / Publish’d as the Act directs April 23. 1780. / J. Basire del. et Sc.


Sumptibus Societatis Antiquar. Londini: Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London

Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plates 2.29-35.

Commentary by Bernard Nurse:

This series of seven engravings published in Vetusta Monumenta in 1780 illustrates three monuments in Westminster Abbey that were briefly uncovered in the summer of 1775 only to be obscured from view a few years later. Sir Joseph Ayloffe, one of the Commissioners in the new State Paper Office and Vice-President of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL), commissioned the Society’s engraver, James Basire, to record them while it was still possible and gave a long paper on them to the SAL in March 1778 (SAL Minutes XV.420-30, 454). In this he traced the origins of their coverings to the tapestries placed there on the occasion of the coronation of Charles I in 1625. These tapestries were replaced by two other pieces in 1706 which were only removed when alterations to the choir took place in 1775. Much to Ayloffe’s regret, by the time he read his paper, the monuments had been covered up again “behind a screen of ill-designed and unmeaning carpentry” (Ayloffe 1780, 4).

The monuments concerned were situated on either side of the sanctuary in front of the high altar and faced the magnificent Cosmati pavement. Two other monuments were on the same side as Aveline’s, those of Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, and that of her husband, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster. The north sides of these tombs could still be seen by anyone passing along the ambulatory, but no part of the three recorded for Ayloffe was visible.

In the year before the coverings were removed, Daines Barrington, the lawyer, naturalist and also Vice-President of the SAL, had obtained special permission from the abbey authorities to open the tomb of Edward I in one of the most restricted areas, the chapel of Edward the Confessor behind the high altar (Lake 2020, 166-71; Ayloffe 1785, 376-413). The Society’s Director, Richard Gough, was there and drew some rough sketches of the body. The drawings, now in the Society of Antiquaries library, have been attributed in the past to Basire’s apprentice, William Blake, although Gough wrote afterwards that he regretted that no draughtsman was present, and that he had made his own “rude sketches” (Nurse 2017, 209-10, quoting a letter to William Pennant of 11 May 1784). Gough was also accused of removing a ring from the king’s finger. This has since been shown to have been one of several hoaxes perpetrated on him by the commentator on Shakespeare, George Steevens with whom Gough had fallen out (Nurse 2017, 15-17).

Ayloffe read his paper to the Society over several meetings in March 1778 with accurate drawings already prepared. In the paper, Ayloffe gave his reasons why he wanted the monuments which had been uncovered to be recorded. He said that the monuments, together with the high altar and others in the sanctuary:

added greatly to the magnificence and splendour of that part of the church....Few, if any, of the sepulchral monuments now remaining, can vie with those of Sebert and Aveline...their seclusion therefore from the inspection of the public, and more especially as one of them was erected to the memory, and contains the ashes of the first founder of the church of Westminster, is a circumstance which carries with it such an appearance of disregard and ingratitude to the memory of a munificent and royal benefactor....I take the liberty of laying before the Society the following description of them, together with accurate drawings taken under the inspection of Mr. Basire. (Ayloffe 1780, 1, 4)

A number of other drawings were taken of monuments in the abbey about the same time or shortly afterwards. These were commissioned by Gough from Basire for his own project which he conceived about 1772 or 1773 and explained in a letter to William Cole dated December 1781. This was to illustrate “the sepulchral monuments of Great Britain from the earliest time to the 16th century – after which all traces of Gothic taste were forgotten. A plan so happily executed by Sir Joseph Ayloffe in Westminster choir monuments” (Goddard [2016], 151). As a result there are twenty-nine related drawings of Westminster monuments in the Bodleian library prepared for Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain (Gough 1786, 1796). In this work, Gough did not include any of the Westminster Abbey monuments that had already appeared in Vetusta Monumenta.

Ayloffe’s claim that the drawings were "taken under the inspection of Mr. Basire" has been interpreted in different ways by commentators interested in the relative roles of William Blake and James Basire. Most Blake scholars have attributed the Westminster Abbey drawings to Blake. Most recently Phillips, for example, stated that Ayloffe’s comment meant that they were “almost certainly carried out by Blake” (2014, 42). Crosby (2009, 168) also comments on the linear style typical of Blake. They both also quote, as do most Blake scholars, the artist’s first biographer Benjamin Heath Malkin, writing some thirty years after the event, who said Blake told him that after serving the first two years of his apprenticeship, which would have been in 1774, aged seventeen, he was sent out of the workshop to make drawings from old buildings and monuments and occasionally employed in engraving from them:

The monuments of King’s and Queen’s in Westminster Abbey, which surround the chapel of Edward the Confessor, particularly that of King Henry the third, the beautiful monument and figure of Queen Elinor, Queen Philippa, King Edward the Third, King Richard the Second and his Queen, were among his first studies. All these he drew in every point he could catch, frequently standing on the monument, and viewing the figures from the top....He then drew Aymer de Valence’s monument, with his fine figure on the top. (Malkin 1806, introduction and see William Blake Archive)

Blake is also recorded as hitting a pupil from Westminster School who was annoying him while he was trying to work on his scaffold in the interior of the abbey. None of the monuments mentioned by Malkin were among those commissioned by Ayloffe, although most were used by Gough for his Sepulchral Monuments.

There is therefore good evidence that Blake was working in Westminster Abbey at about the time that Ayloffe commissioned drawings from Basire, and Blake is likely to have carried out at least preliminary drawings. However, it has been claimed by Richard Goddard in his recent history of the engraver and his family that “It is, however, probable that the master himself completed the watercolours and the engravings for Vetusta Monumenta” (Goddard 2016, 144-53). He notes, for example, that the proofs for the engravings were not presented to Council until April 1780, four months after the end of Blake’s apprenticeship. The nine drawings which were presented to Council in 1778 by Basire with his estimates for engraving them were highly finished works of art, three using pen and sepia wash, the others highly coloured in watercolour and gold. Council agreed for them to be engraved but asked for them to be combined onto seven plates. All of the engravings were inscribed as drawn and engraved by Basire and most of the drawings were signed Basire with three of them dated 1775. The dating of the drawings, as Butlin has pointed out, is problematic and may have been added later (Butlin 1981, 1.13).

Although these exceptional drawings were finished when Ayloffe read his paper at the SAL in March 1778, it was not until 22 May that Council decided to publish the paper and asked for finished drawings and the estimate for engraving. These were presented on 8 July and it was agreed to pay Basire £12.16 shillings for the “coloured drawings” (about £2,000 today). It is not clear whether the payment was for drawings previously shown in 1778 and the finished drawings were those ordered to be prepared for engraving with some objects combined.

The “coloured drawings” were far more elaborate than would be required for engraving but were excellent record images. Regardless of Blake’s exact role in the process, Blake scholars have described how his recording of monuments in Westminster Abbey at a formative period of his life had a considerable influence on his later work. The linear techniques that Blake learned as an apprentice shaped his approach to bounding lines throughout his career. His engagement with sepulchral monuments in the 1770s inspired early literary subjects such as King Edward the Third and “Fair Elenor” in Poetical Sketches (1783; Crosby 2009, 173-78). In his literary illustrations Blake explores how different visual techniques might turn the static subject of the recumbent body of the dead into a visionary experience. The horizontal composition of the sepulchral monuments in Westminster Abbey inspired the visual format for Blake's three large colour-printed drawings of “The House of Death” from Milton’s Paradise Lost (1795/1805, Butlin 1981, 1.320-22). In these three prints the process of dying is captured in different points of time by adding variations in pen and watercolour to represent the contortions and contractions of faces, muscles, and hands. The format of the series offered another way of exploring the potential of the recumbent body in designs illustrating Robert Blair’s The Grave, created by Blake in Autumn 1805, engraved by Louis Schiavonetti, and published by Robert Hartley Cromek in 1808. A prospectus to The Grave published in November 1805 lists Malkin as the author of the preface and as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (Bentley 1962; Essick and Paley 1982). This is the context in which Malkin discussed Blake’s apprenticeship work on the sepulchral monuments of Westminster Abbey in his Memoirs published a few months later. Malkin’s account could be read as part of an attempt to promote Blake’s designs for The Grave, by giving them antiquarian credentials. The representation of “The Counseller, King, Warrior, Mother & Child, in the Tomb” extends the repertoire of the sepulchral monuments of Westminster Abbey, while other illustrations capture deathbed scenes in which the lighter form of the soul is shown leaving the recumbent body of the dead. In the Descriptive Catalogue to his 1809 exhibition Blake announces that “the British Antiquities are now in the Artist’s hands” (Erdman 542). The immediate context of this statement is his reinvention of antiquarian subject matter in paintings like The Ancient Britons (Heringman 2019), but his words also signal how antiquarian practice and the documentary formats of antiquarian drawing formed the basis for the “visionary contemplations” (Erdman 542) of the prophetic artist (see William Blake Archive).

Whereas apprentices were never credited for their contribution to engravings, it is doubtful if Basire would have claimed draughtsmanship of drawings if he had not been responsible for the final version. The drawings of details not signed by him are the ones most likely to have been produced by one of his apprentices. The linear style, which was a feature of Blake’s work, was not unique to him, but was something he learned during his time in Basire’s workshop, and was one of several techniques employed by Basire. The process from commission of subjects to engraving went through many stages which were often the result of team effort sometimes over a considerable length of time, and in this case it is difficult to separate the contributions of different parties.

From its foundation the Society emphasised the importance of recording antiquities as accurately as possible; several thousand were received and arranged later into the present portfolios, most of which have been digitised and are available for searching on the Archaeological Data Service. Proficiency improved throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, especially from 1784 when John Carter (1748-1817 was appointed the first official draftsman. In addition to being published in Vetusta Monumenta, the drawings also appeared in new series such as the Historical Prints (1770-80), and the Cathedral Series (1790-1806), which was the first publication to attempt accurate, detailed, and measured drawings of the religious houses of England. After Carter, the most significant artist employed was Charles Stothard (1786-1821) who made drawings of the Bayeux Tapestry in 1816 and the Painted Chamber at Westminster Palace in 1820, both published in Vetusta Monumenta.


The four original drawings of Aveline’s monument are incorporated into three engravings in Vetusta Monumenta (Plates 2.29-31). In his paper, Ayloffe gives a full account of the life of Aveline, who was an heiress of immense wealth and therefore an attractive subject suitable for marriage into the royal family. In 1269 in Westminster Abbey, she married Edmund Crouchback, Henry III’s son, and was therefore Edward I’s sister in law; it was the first royal wedding in the new church. Ayloffe says this took place when she was nearly eighteen, although historians now believe she was only ten. He did not know the precise date of her death except that it must have been by 1276. He gives a detailed description with measurements of the monument as seen when the coverings were removed, noting that it stood at the head of the monument of Aymer de Valence, on the north side of the Presbytery (Sanctuary) in front of the high altar:

It consists of an altar tomb of Touchstone [a hard black stone formerly used for testing gold], placed under a magnificent mausoleum or canopy twelve feet in height, formed in imitation of those temporary structures or hearses under which, in ancient times, the corpses of our kings, queens and principal nobility were usually laid...

This tomb, which is two feet eight in height,...stands on an ascent of two steps, each rising six inches.

On the south side...are six tabernacles or recesses....In each of the recesses stands the statue of a man, in alto relievo, dressed in a long robe or gown; but unfortunately the heads of four of them have been broken off and destroyed.

The covering stone of the tomb is four inches in thickness...[on it] is placed a cumbent effigy five feet seven inches in length, cut in free stone [a fine-grained stone which can be cut easily in any direction], and representing Aveline countess of Lancaster as a beautiful woman in the bloom of youth....The whole of this effigy, as also the figures of the two angels, together with the front of the tomb, appear to have been originally richly painted and gilt, but most of the colours are now worn off. (Ayloffe 1780, 4-10)

Ayloffe does not suggest a date for the construction of the tomb, but on stylistic grounds it can be seen to date from the 1290s—some twenty years after Aveline’s death, apparently after the tomb of Queen Eleanor (died 1290) and before that of Aveline’s husband, Edmund Crouchback (died 1296) (Gee 1979). However, it is now known that she died in childbirth in 1274 and was then buried in the Abbey at the request of Queen Eleanor. What occasioned the creation of this monument some two decades after Aveline’s death is uncertain. It may have resulted from the death of her mother in 1293, after which Edward I managed to acquire the vast family estates, or from her husband’s response to Edward’s installation of other family effigies in the chapel, or from the death of Edmund in 1297, followed by the construction of a similar tomb for himself.

Just as the builders of the Abbey looked to France for inspiration, Gee notes that the influence of French tomb design has long been recognized and the monument to Aveline is close to the French “ciborium” model. Features include the arched and gabled canopy, the gabled arcade with small figures or weepers and the angels sitting and holding the cushion on which the head rests. However, sculptural details such as foliage decoration, some of which are illustrated on Plate 2.31, are English rather than French elements. Two other monuments at Worcester and Chichester show similar sculpture and Gee says they point to the same workshop or group of sculptural masons (Gee 1979, 33-34). There has clearly been some restoration carried out since, because the apex of the canopy is depicted as missing in Vetusta Monumenta but has been restored.

Butlin (1981, 3-4, nos. 5-6) describes the drawings for the individual details shown on Plate 2.31 and indicates which of these may also be located on Plate 2.29, which shows the front of the monument: “‘A’ shows the under vaulting under one side of the canopy of the tomb [note: this is not visible on plate 29]; ‘B’ (‘C’ on the engraving) the painting on the trefoil compartment at the top of the canopy [in the pediment at the top of plate 29]; and ‘C’ (‘B’ on the engraving) an acanthus on the front of the canopy [on the right of plate 29].” The separate drawing marked ‘D’ on the engraving shows the ornament on the spandrels in the pediment of the canopy over the tomb; this is at the top of plate 29, just below and to the right of the trefoil compartment. Ayloffe (1780, 6) suggests that the figures of two angels (‘C’ on Plate 2.31, ‘B’ on the drawing) might have been intended to represent Aveline’s assumption into heaven. He notes that the detail of the spandrel occupied by a large fruited branch of a vine (‘D’ on the engraving, mistakenly designated as ‘B’ by Ayloffe) alludes to the first five verses of St. John’s Gospel which includes the phrase: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He also points out that the same imagery occurs in the church of Christchurch, Twynham in Hampshire, the burial place of Aveline’s paternal ancestors.

Although many of the details and coats of arms on the canopied tomb are now lost and the evidence that Aveline is buried within is lacking, there seems to be no doubt from the arms of Aveline’s grandfather and husband, which survived into the nineteenth century, that the monument depicted commemorated Aveline. Payne has recently suggested that the monument is not in its original position and that Aveline is more likely to have been originally buried in Edward the Confessor’s chapel behind the high altar under a slab with a tomb-marker (2019, 2.514-5). He argues that the chapel was envisaged as a family mausoleum by Edward I, in which were buried members of his immediate family, rather than as a space reserved for kings. He suggests that the present position facing the high altar would have been inappropriate in the 1270s. It is not clear when the tomb might have been transferred to the position seen by Ayloffe and where it is today.


Sedilia are canopied seats used by the clergy during services. Those in Westminster Abbey on the south side of the Sanctuary are unique survivors as no other extant medieval painted sedilia are made of wood; they are also still in their original setting. The drawings commissioned by Ayloffe and published in Vetusta Monumenta are the earliest illustrations of the north front of the monument. Ayloffe identified the two kings as supposed to be representing Sebert, the legendary seventh-century founder of the abbey, and Henry III, responsible for remodelling the church dedicated in 1269 (Ayloffe 1780, 10-14). This identification is generally accepted, as it is situated on the supposed tomb of Sebert, reburied there c. 1307, although some have suggested the second king is more likely to be Edward I (Tristram 1955, 39). Where scholars differ from Ayloffe is in his attribution to the artist responsible. In general, the sedilia are considered part of the Westminster School of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Thomas of Westminster, sometimes known as Thomas of Durham, and some painters who worked with him have been suggested as more likely than Ayloffe’s attribution of the Italian artist, Pietro Cavallini (Ayloffe 1780, 14). The former is known to have been working in the Painted Chamber of the Palace of Westminster between 1307 and c. 1309 (Wrapson 2006, 118).

Unusually for the period the sedilia were not just made of oak rather than stone, but there is also no piscina, the basin used for washing holy vessels. Their situation above Sebert’s tomb may be the reason, as there was nowhere for the water to drain. The sedilia have been much altered and wooden elements replaced since the fourteenth century. Notably, the second and fourth paintings, which would have depicted religious figures, were scraped off in 1644 during the Civil War; the reverse suffered a worse fate.

Butlin (1981, 5, no. 10) gives the location of the details shown on the coloured drawings which were engraved on plate 34 with reference to the overall image of the sedilia (plate 32):

At the top are three carved heads seen full-face, a bishop in his mitre in the centre and a crowned monarch on each side at the springing of the two outer arches of the four-arched monument; on the next line are two crowns, those in the paintings of Sebert and Henry, and below them the two heads of their sceptres. Then come three details of their robes and a compartment of the painted vaulting.

These eleven details are described more fully by Ayloffe (1780, 11-13). Others that he mentions could be seen at the time but several “are no longer present,” according to Butlin. These include the front piers and structure into which they projected, the glass decoration in the trefoils and spandrels and the finials in the cusped arches. The coloured drawings presented to the Society by Basire are far more detailed than would be required for an engraver and more accurate in some minor respects. For example, the engraving depicting Henry III only shows three fingers on the left hand instead of four on the drawing and present today. The pupils on the eyes of both figures are placed slightly differently. The stone top of the tomb which acts as the seat is now covered by a nineteenth century oak board (Wrapson 2006, 116-8).

Anne of Cleves

Anne of Cleves (1515 -57) was the fourth wife of Henry VIII; they married in 1540. Arranged for political reasons to gain an alliance with the Protestant states of western Germany, the marriage was annulled a few months later after Henry found her not to his liking and the alliance was no longer felt necessary. However, during the reign of Henry’s daughter, the Catholic Mary I, Anne changed her religion and became a Catholic. After Anne’s death in 1557, Mary ordered her burial in the Abbey in a prestigious location and arranged a magnificent funeral for her. Her tomb was placed next to the sedilia but further from the high altar, backing onto the south ambulatory. As Ayloffe points out it was left unfinished, probably due to lack of funding and royal interest when Elizabeth came to the throne. The designer is not known but he suggests that the architect might have been Theodore Haveus from Cleves, the noted authority who taught architecture at Cambridge, because of the Greek style of the altar tomb. The elegance and good taste shown in what was finished was evidence of a very skilful and able architect; and the attribution is generally thought likely.

The print shows the north side of the tomb; the south side has been destroyed or concealed by later monuments except for two panels and the adjoining pilaster. The inscription on the back, visible from the south transept, reads “Anne of Cleves Queen of England. Born 1515. Died 1557” but this was not added until the 1970s. Otherwise the tomb is only identified by her initials – “AC” on the side slabs and the royal arms of Cleves.


The early 1760s had been a time of little activity by the SAL, despite receiving a royal charter in 1751. No meetings were held between June and November, few members attended, and Horace Walpole gave up coming. After George Vertue’s resignation as engraver in 1756, fewer plates were published in Vetusta Monumenta, but with the tenure of Basire from Plate 2.20 they were consistently issued with commentaries, which had only appeared on occasion before this time. The portrait of former President Charles Lyttelton (Plate 2.28) in 1770 was the last plate to be published for ten years. The revival of the series in 1780 with this set of seven prints (and expanded commentaries) owes much to the election of two energetic officers, Jeremiah Milles as President in 1769 and Richard Gough as Director in 1771. The two had similar ideas on the importance of publication, and with Gough as editor of the Society’s new journal Archaeologia from the second volume issued in 1773, it appeared regularly about every two years.

Ayloffe had been particularly critical of the prints in Vetusta Monumenta, complaining to Lord Hardwicke, the son of the Lord Chancellor, that they were “of little consequence and less amusement” (BL Add MS 35615, fol.45, letter to Lord Hardwicke, 25 September 1778). They had suggested instead that the Society should reproduce paintings that illustrated remarkable events in Britain’s national history. They persuaded the Society to reproduce seven, most of which featured Henry VIII. Following a paper read to the Society by Ayloffe in 1770, The Field of Cloth of Gold (painted c. 1545) was copied by Basire the following year and issued as the first in the series in 1775. The historical prints were thought to encourage a sense of patriotism and national identity and raised the Society’s profile at a time when they were trying to persuade their royal patron to allow them to move into the new Somerset House. All these publications in the 1770s were in sharp contrast to the period before. However, Gough was critical of the large historical prints, describing them as an “ill-advised venture”, expensive to produce and neglecting his favourite medieval period (Sweet 2007, 85).

The Westminster Abbey series satisfied them both and Council was persuaded to publish them in two formats, as a separate pamphlet and in a revived Vetusta Monumenta. It was the largest set of prints, with the longest commentary, issued in the series up to that time. It was appropriately published in the same year, 1780, that the SAL moved into its new premises in Somerset House, sharing them with the Royal Academy and the Royal Society. The success of this series led to a further sixty-four prints appearing in Vetusta Monumenta in the following sixteen years when Gough was Director. His influence can be seen in many of the subjects chosen, most from the medieval period and many of church monuments. By the time he resigned in 1796, the three-pronged approach to expanding the Society’s series of publications with Archaeologia, Vetusta Monumenta and the historical prints was well established, except by then the historical prints had been replaced with the even more ambitious, expensive and eventually unsustainable Cathedral Series.


The author is grateful to Dr Luisa Calè for contributing the section on the influence on William Blake of his experience in Westminster Abbey when he was an apprentice to the engraver, James Basire (see Calè forthcoming 2021).

Works Cited:

Ayloffe, Joseph. 1775. “An Account of the Body of King Edward the First, as it appeared on opening his Tomb in the Year 1774.” Archaeologia 3: 376-413.

------. 1780. “Account of Some Ancient Monuments in Westminster Abbey.” Paper read to the Society of Antiquaries, March 12, 1778.

Bentley G. E. Jr. 1962. “The Promotion of Blake’s Grave Designs.” University of Toronto Quarterly 31, no. 3: 339-353.

Butlin, Martin. 1981. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Calè, Luisa. (Forthcoming 2021). “Fourfold Vision: William Blake and the Couches of the Dead.” Ancient Objects and New Media, edited by Crystal B. Lake and Noah Heringman. To appear in Modern Philology.

Crosby, Mark. 2009. “William Blake in Westminster Abbey, 1774-1777.” The Bodleian Library Record 22, no. 2: 162-80.

Erdman, David, V., ed. 1982. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Essick, Robert, and Morton Paley. 1982. Robert Blair’s The Grave Illustrated by William Blake: A Study with Facsimile. London: Scolar Press.

Gee, Loveday. 1979. “Ciborium Tombs in England 1290-1330.” Journal of the British Archaeological Association 42, no. 1: 29-41.

Goddard, Richard. 2016. “Drawing on Copper”: The Basire Family of Copper-Plate Engravers and their Works. Maastricht: Maastricht University Press.

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