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by Walter Robinson
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Just what is an antiquary? A clue is provided by an 1812 colored engraving by George Cruikshank, which shows a crowded meeting of the London Society of Antiquaries in comic disarray, the unheeded chairman waving his arms about and brandishing a paper that may well be marked with a Regency-era version of “kiss my ass.” Various members nap or avidly compare notes, and one of them examines a pseudo-classical bust said to represent his Jamaican mistress. In the center of the table sits an assortment of derelict items, including a coal scuttle labeled “ancient shield” and a pig trough marked “Roman sarcophagus.” 

It's a vision of a new profession, the study of the past and its artifacts, at least as practiced by the celebrated London Society of Antiquaries, now more than 300 years old. And an eccentric and uncertain business it is, too, its enthusiasms and missteps prone to mockery and misunderstanding. But couldn't a disorderly collection of oddments in fact provide a truer picture of the random and eccentric ways that history and culture come to be what they are?

All this and more is the focus of “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain, 1707-2007,” the new exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art that draws from the society's collections, as well as from odds and ends that Paul Mellon picked up along the way and deposited with his prize museum in New Haven.

Appropriately enough, the London Society of Antiquaries, which is presently located in Burlington House in Piccadilly, was founded by three men in a London tavern in 1707. One of them took minutes of the meeting, which are now a part of the society collections, and included here, along with the founder's portrait. Remember that, next time you’re having a drink with friends.

"Making History" presents a fascinating if somewhat random collection of objects -- a copy of the Magna Carta; early maps; etchings and watercolors of cathedrals, ruins and mounds (by JMW Turner, among others); groups of Roman coins; a bronze shield thrown in a bog; a gothic bronze cross plowed up in a field; anonymous portraits of Tudor kings; a wealth of watercolors and etchings of Stonehenge; a drawing of a section of the Bayeux Tapestry; and a gallery of works by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Plus more.

The idea is that the English people, following the cultural upheaval of the Wars of the Roses and the Protestant Reformation, were prompted to undertake a new study of their country's cultural and historical identity -- an enterprise that encompassed archeology, i.e. digging up tombs, as well as a peculiarly modern approach to "historic preservation."

The fascination with the classical age represented by the Grand Tour could just as easily be exercised closer to home, via England’s own ruined monasteries and mysterious tombs and megaliths.

Perhaps the most illustrative object in the show is a large diptych of Old St. Paul's Cathedral, commissioned in 1616 by Henry Farley, a London clerk. An early preservationist, Farley sought to promote the repair of the church, which had been struck by lightning in 1561 and badly damaged. On the left panel is a scene showing King James I and other notables at the cathedral, raptly listening to sermons advocating its repair, while on the right is a vision of the cathedral restored to heavenly glory.

Someone was listening, though not too closely. St. Paul's was rebuilt in the late 1600s by Sir Christopher Wren.

Since the show considers the transition from pagan beliefs to early science, it includes some notable fantasias, not least of them the printed book Britannia Antiqua Illustrata. Published in 1676 by one Aylett Sammes, it posits Britain as a land settled by the Phoenicians, whose rites included the giant Wicker Man, burnt with human sacrifices to turn away bad fortune. According to the curators, this construction -- since brought into contemporary times by more than one movie -- is entirely fanciful.

Another colored engraving from 1590 shows a Pict maiden -- a member of an Iron Age British tribe thought to be kin to the newly discovered Native Americans in Virginia -- her body covered with brightly colored tattoos of various flora. This, too, finds its Hollywood counterparts, though none quite so sweet as the "Younge Dowgter of the Pictes."

More mundane but at the same time especially telling is the 1789 watercolor by Jacob Schnebbelie of the Waltham Cross, a monument marking one of the stopping places of the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor in 1290. Visible in the work is the pair of oak bollards, put up in 1721 to protect the cross from damage by passing carts. The antiquarian society paid for the bollards -- the first such privately financed civic work -- and also paid for the publication of the etching.

As for Stonehenge, well, it is the epitome of an antiquarian subject. According to the imaginary pre-Roman history written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th century, the circle of megaliths was built by Merlin’s magic. Inigo Jones, when he surveyed Stonehenge in 1655 -- the show features his engraving in which the monument has been straightened and completed, and its stones squared off -- determined that it was a Roman temple to the god of the sky. William Stukeley, one of our society members, published his engravings of the site in 1740, popularizing the notion that Stonehenge was a Druid temple built around 480 BC.

From the Romantic era are watercolors of the monument by Turner, John Constable and others, and modern times have provided us with a 1906 aerial photograph of the site and a neo-romantic 1967 photograph by Paul Caponigro, obviously one of the society's recent acquisitions. Whatever the facts, these more recent renderings of the monument suggest that its true mysteries, like so many pursued by antiquaries everywhere, will always be found in the heart.

“Making History: Antiquaries in Britain,” Feb. 2-May 27, 2012, at the Yale Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel Street, New Haven, Conn. 06510

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.