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Society of Antiquaries fights for its home and its stunning collection 2

open double page view of a medieval illuminated manuscript

The Lindsey Psalter. Courtesy Society of Antiquaries.

The home of the Society of Antiquaries of London is under threat from rent increases which may also threaten its stunning collection

From the Neolithic stone tool used by the builders of Stonehenge through to its three early copies of the Magna Carta, the collection of treasures cared for by the Society of Antiquaries of London has played an important role in the understanding of Britain’s past since the Society’s inception in 1707.

Yet this week it emerged that the future of this unique institution remains uncertain and, after eight years spent appealing behind closed doors, they have now gone public with a campaign to keep its collection and work intact by staying in their home of 145 years, New Burlington House.

The root of the problem is the rent, which since 2012 has risen by a staggering 3,100%. The freeholder – HM government – has been raising rents at New Burlington House in line with the soaring property values in the West End and the Society’s rent has now risen from £4.8k in 2012-13 to over £150k per year in 2018-19.

The Society says it can no longer afford to stay, and its work providing research grants, support for conservation, and educational activities, and its efforts to ensure its 170,000-strong collection of culturally significant objects is accessible through exhibition loans, is now seriously under threat.

photo of a decorated casket with medieval motifs and figures

The Beckett Casket. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries.

photo of an ornate decorated medieval cross

Medieval processional cross from the Battle of Bosworth. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries.

They may also have to consider the unthinkable act of selling a portion of its collection to raise funds for appropriate infrastructure to protect the rest.

The remarkably far-reaching collection reaches back into our pre-history, with signature items ranging from Neolithic tools to Tudor royal portraits that signpost key moments in British history.

The Society was one of the few national organisations interested in the study and collecting of British antiquities in the early nineteenth century and in the pre museum world that we enjoy today it was seen as the most suitable place for the safe deposit and display of new discoveries of portable antiquities.

Whilst the Society had the capacity of wall space to display a number of paintings, larger artefacts were later given away to museums due to space limitations. The smaller pieces remained and were added to, which led to an ever-present eclectic variety of objects available for their Fellows to view, handle and study.

One of its greatest treasures is the illuminated book of Psalms in Latin from the Old Testament of the Bible, known as the as the Lindsey Psalter. Owned by Robert de Lindesey, the Benedictine Abbot of Peterborough from 1214 to 1222, it is one of the few prayer books from the 13th century that can be connected to a named individual and therefore, closely dated.

The manuscript includes two full-page miniatures of the Crucifixion and Christ in Majesty and one full-page ornamented initial, all attributed to the same artist. These, with other decorated initials, are regarded as prime examples of the early Gothic style in English painting.

Objects on long term loan to national collections include the Society’s St Thomas Becket reliquary Casket and the Merton Head, discovered at Merton Priory, both of which can be seen at the British Museum, and Simone dei Crocifssi’s Dream of the Virgin (c.1365-80), which is at the National Gallery.

a carved stone head with crown

The Merton Head. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries.

painting of Richard III

Richard III (arched) (1452-1485). Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

Other fascinating markers of moments in British history include the processional cross recovered from the Battle of Bosworth, which brought the War of the Roses to its conclusion with the defeat of Richard III and the coronation of Henry VII, and a painting of Richard III which is thought to be the earliest surviving version of a lost prototype made in his lifetime.

The New Burlington House building houses thousands of these unique artefacts, together with books and other works of art spanning centuries of human history – the result of nearly 300 years of acquisition. Today the collection attracts people from all over the world who come to study it making the society a hub for enthusiasts to meet experts and share ideas in the Library and lecture room.

As a self-supporting charity, the Society is now under enormous pressure to raise funds for alternative premises where the collection would remain safe and ensure it is accessible to academics, students, and the public.

They say an “almost unthinkable yet looming scenario” is that the Society may have to sell some collection items to fund new premises to appropriately house the rest of its artefacts.

“Our understanding of the past has a profound effect on the way that we see and shape this world for the future,” adds the Society’s President Paul Drury. “For centuries, the Society of Antiquaries has been proud to play a unique role in making rare and valuable material accessible to academics, students, and the historically curious public.

“We want to safeguard this opportunity for generations to come. Finding a resolution to secure our home at Burlington House would allow us to keep our precious collections intact and further enhance our value to the UK public and research community.”

The Society says it is already modernising to ensure the nation’s history that it represents both reflects and reaches a more diverse public and that securing the Society’s future at Burlington House would enable it to continue its plans to further increase public engagement and generate income which can be reinvested in exhibitions and activities in communities across the United Kingdom.

golden Christian painting showing Mary with the crucified Christ above her

Dream of the Virgin (c.1365-80) by Simone dei Crocifssi. This painting is on long term loan to the National Gallery.

Supporters of the campaign are invited to write to their MP, and post on social media using the hashtag #SocAntiquaries.

Further information about the campaign can be found at: www.sal.org.uk/save-burlington-house/

More treasures from the Society of Antiquaries of London Collection:

Drawing of the Ribchester Helmet

detailed sketch of a full face Roman helmet with lifelike face guard

Drawing of the Ribchester Helmet. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries.

This is a drawing of one of the finest examples of a cavalry parade helmet from Roman Britain. The helmet was discovered accidentally in 1796 by the son of a clog-maker playing in some wasteland in Lancashire.

The helmet and much of the hoard found alongside it was purchased by Charles Townley FSA in 1797 and later acquired by the British Museum. When comparing this drawing to the real helmet the achievement of the artist is clear: the fine decorative detail has been minutely recorded, as well as the nature of the corrosion of the helmet ‘as found.’

Hatton-Dugdale Book of Arms

a page of a book filled with shield coats of arms

Hatton-Dugdale Book of Arms. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

Facsimile copies of twenty-six medieval and sixteenth-century rolls made for Sir Christopher Hatton (1st Baron Hatton of Kirby 1643) under the direction of (Sir) William Dugdale, probably by the arms painter William Sedgwick c. 1638-40.

Hatton, with Sir Edward Dering, Sir Thomas Shirley and Dugdale, formed an antiquarian society in 1638 called ‘Antiquitas rediviva’ to collect and record the evidences of armory and antiquities. Heraldry and genealogy were subjects of great interest to Elizabethan and early Stuart antiquaries, as the history of noble and gentry families was central to national and local history.

Medieval-style jewel casket belonging to Jane Morris

a house shaped metal box painted with medieval figures in the pre-Raphaelite style

Medieval-style jewel casket belonging to Jane Morris. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

This casket continues to be celebrated as a Pre-Raphaelite relic whilst its precise origin and purpose remains obscure. Within its fourteen-panels is a complex history of Morris and those who lived in Kelmscott Manor.

Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal prior to her death in 1862, it was possibly given by Rossetti to Jane Burden on her marriage to Morris in 1859. Some also suggest that is was gifted in the early 1870s at the time when Morris, Rossetti and Burden, with whom Rossetti was in love, all moved to the Manor.

‘Hertfordshire’ from An Atlas of England and Wales (1579)

old coloured county map in a book

Hertfordshire from An Atlas of England and Wales (1579) published by Christopher Saxton. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

Christopher Saxton published the first county maps in 1579, thereby enabling Englishmen to envisage in detail the land in which they lived.

Mary I (1516-1558)

formal painting Mary I in gold dress and black cloak

Mary I (1516-1558). Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

This is the first major portrait of Mary (1516–58; reigned 1553–58) after her coronation on October 1 1553 and was probably painted around the time of her thirty-eighth birthday (18 February 1554). The daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Mary succeeded to the throne on the death of Edward VI and the portrait presents her as a woman who has, through a sad and lonely youth, honed an iron determination and a sense of destiny.

Mary stands in the pose established by Holbein for demure women. Behind her is a red velvet Cloth of Estate. The jewels she wears all carried special historic interest: the Tau or ‘headless’ Cross, set with five diamonds and a pearl pendant, was her mother’s; the table diamond with a pearl pendant was given to her by Philip II of Spain who she married in July 1554 ; the pendant hanging from her waist is symbolic of her Catholic faith.

Diptych of Old St Paul’s

panting of a

Diptych of Old St Paul’s. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

This panel is part of a diptych made for a London scrivener or local clerk, Henry Farley, as part of his campaign for the restoration of St Paul’s Cathedral from 1615 until 1622. The third and final of the panel paintings, it offers a vision of the restored church, with a new cupola, the royal family and angels rejoicing in the wonderful work of restoration.

Le Champ de Drap d’Or (The Field of the Cloth of Gold)

black and white print showing a long procession led by Henry VIIIthrough a town towards large tents and marquees in the distance

Le Champ de Drap d’Or (The Field of the Cloth of Gold). Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries.

The occasion of the meeting between Henry VIII and the French king, François I, near Calais in June 1520 was depicted in two immense paintings, probably executed from 1550 to 1580 and now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court. One shows Henry VIII departing from Dover and the other the festivities that took place – known as Le Champ de Drap d’Or. In 1770 Sir Joseph Ayloffe gave an account of the latter to the Society, and it was agreed it should be copied and published as a print.

The drawing, although reduced, contained so much detail that innovative techniques were employed to fit the image on one sheet. Basire made the largest single copperplate used up to then and the papermaker, James Whatman, invented special equipment to manufacture the largest sheet of handmade paper, known afterwards as ‘Antiquarian’ size (31 x 53 in.; 78.7 x 134.6 cm).

Sir John Dodderidge (1555-1628)

painted Tudor portriat of elderyl man in black hat and ermine cloak

Sir John Dodderidge (1555-1628). one of the earliest members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries founded about 1586. Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

John Dodderidge was one of the earliest members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries founded about 1586. Appointed judge of the King’s Bench in 1612 he is depicted in this portrait wearing a black bonnet tipped with scarlet, white ruff and judges’ robes of scarlet and white fur. Shortly before Elizabeth’s death, he drew up a petition to the Queen with Sir Robert Cotton and James Lee for the establishment of ‘an Academy for the Study of Antiquity and History’ which ultimately failed.

Martin Folkes (1690-1754)

painted portrait of a man wearing a blue velvet jacket and hat

Martin Folkes (1690-1754). Courtesy The Society of Antiquaries

After touring in Europe, Martin Folkes FSA became increasingly interested in antiquarian subjects, especially numismatics. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1714 and to the Society of Antiquaries in 1720, later becoming President of both societies. Under his Presidency the Society of Antiquaries was granted its royal charter in 1751.

This is the earliest known portrait of Folkes, painted when he was about twenty-eight years old. As in several other 18th century portraits Folkes is dressed in typical male ‘undress’ wear put on at home in informal surroundings.


Society of Antiquaries of London

London, Greater London

The Society of Antiquaries of London is charged by its Royal Charter of 1751 with ‘the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries’. It celebrated its Tercentenary in 2007. The Society’s 3,000 Fellows include many distinguished archaeologists and…



2 comments on “Society of Antiquaries fights for its home and its stunning collection

  1. Kimberly Reid-Schafer on

    What a wonderful collection! I do hope and pray that during this unprecedented time that the British people and their government find a way of saving this institution.


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