The Society of Antiquaries of London is the oldest independent learned society solely concerned with the study of the past. The Elizabethan College of Antiquaries, with such scholars as William Camden, Sir Robert Cotton and John Stow, disbanded in the reign of James I. The Royal Society, founded in 1660, had an early interest in historical monuments such as Avebury and published much material on archaeological finds in its Philosophical Transactions. However, by the end of the 17th century, its attention was focused purely on science. The Society of Antiquaries of London traces its origin to a meeting on 5 December 1707 between three friends, Humfrey Wanley, John Talman and John Bagford, in a London tavern. At this time those who were interested in the physical and documentary evidence for the past were called antiquaries. The Society was formally constituted in 1718 when there were 23 members, and the first Articles of Association defined the purpose of the Society as making knowledge of British antiquities more universal.
The Society had a membership of about 150 in 1751 when it was granted a royal charter by King George II, who became its patron, and its members became entitled to call themselves Fellows (or FSA). It was charged by its charter with the 'encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries', and a wide national and international outlook has been a feature ever since. Once the Society had been incorporated as a chartered learned society, bequests could be accepted. In 1753, the Society rented rooms in a former coffee house in Chancery Lane, providing a secure space for the library, but it soon outgrew these premises. In 1781, the Society of Antiquaries joined the Royal Society and the Royal Academy in the spacious new accommodation with finely decorated rooms at Somerset House, in the Strand, which had been granted by their patron at the time, King George III. The rooms are now used by the Courtauld Gallery.
The collections grew rapidly. Members were collectors and donated acquisitions of an astonishing variety. Unique broadsides relating to the 17th-century Virginia Company were given with several hundred others. Objects such as a Bronze Age shield from Scotland and a Thomas Becket casket from about 1200 were donated, as were illuminated manuscripts and medieval rolls. An outstanding group of early royal portraits was bequeathed by Thomas Kerrich in 1828.
The Society purchased from its own funds two important collections of drawings previously belonging to John Talman and Edward Harley, and occasionally bought works of art such as the diptych of Old St Paul's painted in 1616. Key manuscript sources for British history such as the 12th-century Winton Domesday and the mid 16th-century Inventory of Henry VIII were acquired at auction, and transcripts were later published. Before the middle of the 19th century the Society was often seen by Fellows as the most appropriate place to deposit British antiquities and historical documents and pictures. The British Museum only started officially collecting British antiquity with the acquisition of Charles Roach Smith FSA's collection of London finds in 1856 (previously its interests had been dominated by classical antiquity), the National Portrait Gallery was not founded until the same year and County Record Offices were not established until the 20th century.
The Society's most notable contribution at this time was towards the understanding of British medieval art and architecture. The commissioning of record drawings of medieval buildings was an important aspect of its work, and artists known for their accuracy, such as George Vertue and John Carter, were appointed as draughtsmen. The 13th-century murals at the Palace of Westminster and the 16th-century wallpaintings at Cowdray House, Sussex, were recorded and published by the Society; both buildings were later destroyed by fire. Drawings of items in Fellows' collections were exhibited at meetings; one was of a ring said to have been given by Mary Queen of Scots to an ancestor of Lord Mansfield. This can no longer be traced. Drawings were commissioned for publication, such as those of the Ribchester helmet now in the British Museum. Objects were displayed and passed around a long table for members to discuss; a practice caricatured by Cruikshank in his satirical print The Antiquarian Society.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the Society was considered fashionable, with members that included leading politicians, noblemen, clergy, lawyers and collectors and numbers that reached about 800 by 1812. The Antiquaries remained a small society, but managed to raise its standing in the archaeological community by the vigorous efforts of several distinguished officers in the second half of the 19th century. After 1852, local secretaries were appointed who reported on finds in their areas and the record was published in the Society's Proceedings. When A. W. Franks, Keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum, was director in the 1860s and 1870s several important exhibitions were held in Somerset House, including a series on Palaeolithic (1871), Neolithic (1872) and Bronze Age (1873) implements. Scholars with an international reputation, such as Schliemann, visited the Society and addressed meetings.
The government's pressing need for accommodation for civil servants in Somerset House led to the learned societies there being offered alternative premises in the new Burlington House, Piccadilly, and the Antiquaries moved in 1875, gaining considerably more space for the growing library. The collections developed from a concentration on British topography into a major resource for the study of British and European archaeology. Under the presidency of Sir John Evans (1885–92), the Society took the initiative to improve liaison between county archaeological societies by establishing the Congress of Archaeological Societies. In 1889, Evans established the Research Fund with a sizeable donation from his own resources. Grants from the Fund, the Society's support and the expertise of its Fellows made possible excavations at many important British sites including Silchester, Hampshire, in the 1890s, Maiden Castle, Dorset (under Mortimer Wheeler) in the 1930s and Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, in the 1980s.
The Society has a distinguished record in promoting the interests of British archaeology and the protection of the historic environment. In 1877, William Morris, who was later elected a Fellow, formed the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and in 1882 Fellows were instrumental in lobbying for the passing of the first Ancient Monuments Protection Act. In 1907 the Society encouraged the government to establish the Royal Commission for the Historical Monuments of England. In 1944 it took an active part in the creation of the Council of British Archaeology to succeed the Congress of Archaeological Societies.
Today the Society's fellowship has grown to over 2600 individuals spread around the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. Women were admitted for the first time in 1921 and now form about one quarter of the total. Fellows work in the fields of archaeology, art and architectural history, material culture studies, museology, archival research, conservation and cultural resource management. They serve in senior positions in universities, museums, libraries, archives, professional bodies, local authorities and national heritage agencies, as well as in private practice.
As an independent charity and leading non-government organisation in its sector, the Society is uniquely placed to encourage and facilitate public debate on the management, conservation, presentation and wider understanding of the cultural heritage. It also nominates representatives to the Council of the National Trust, the Culture Committee of the UK Commission for UNESCO, and trustees to the British Museum and to the Sir John Soane's Museum. It advises all the All-Party Parliamentary Groups concerned with culture and heritage.
The Society has registered museum status for its collections at Burlington House and also for the buildings and collections at Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire, the former country home of William Morris, Fellow, and leader of the English Arts and Crafts movement. Its interests and collections are therefore cross-disciplinary, and the contribution made by both the Society and its Fellows to the study of the past over 300 years has been considerable.
Joan Evans, History of the Society of Antiquaries of London (Oxford, 1956)
Visions of Antiquity: the Society of Antiquaries of London 1707–2007, ed. Susan Pearce (London, 2007)
Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707–2007 (London, 2007). Royal Academy exhibition catalogue.
David Gaimster and Bernard Nurse
Society of Antiquaries of London
2007; revised 2008