So, here’s another little known place to visit in the centre of London – the Society of Antiquaries. You may have walked past it any number of times without realising as it’s located in Burlington House, just across the courtyard from the Royal Academy. If you’ve ever wondered what’s in the buildings either side of the RA entrance, here’s (part of) your answer.
Let’s start with the obvious question: what’s an antiquary? It’s someone who collects old things, without making much distinction as to what old things they’re interested in, as this satirical cartoon from the Society’s collection illustrates.
The Society of Antiquaries was founded in 1707, though there was a College of Antiquaries in existence as far back as 1586, and originally met in a pub in the Strand. It became a Royal Society in 1751 so as to provide a legal entity to which collectors could donate their collections when they died. Nowadays its objects are to foster understanding of our cultural heritage and help formulate public policy on conserving our historic environment and cultural property.
The Society moved to Burlington House in 1874, though it rapidly became too small to house all the collections. It currently holds a spectacular research library and the museum collections.
It has a meeting room for fellows where some historic paintings are held, including the earliest surviving version of a portrait of Richard III and a portrait of Mary I by Hans Eworth.
Along the way, one of the things the society has collected is Kelmscott Manor, William Morris’s house in the Cotswolds, which has given them a strong connection to the artist. The rather attractive sofa in their hall once belonged to Morris.
They have number of artefacts from his publishing company on display in their little museum on the top floor.
These finishing tools were used by Morris in producing the Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1896.
Other items on display include this armorial panel which dates from the sixteenth century and shows the arms of Warwickshire families.
These printing blocks are for printing playing cards. They’re seventeenth century and come from Cordoba.
There are lovely views of the RA courtyard (here with Ai Weiwei trees) from the windows.
As from January 2016 the Society are providing regular tours of their premises. The next tour is on February 23rd and costs £10. You can book on their website under ‘Events’.