Vetusta Monumenta

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Vetusta Monumenta [Ancient Monuments], originally published in seven volumes between 1747 and 1906, was the first of three major publication series launched by the Society of Antiquaries of London in the eighteenth century. Plate I, Plate II, Plate III and Plate IV were published individually in 1718, the year the society was formally re-established at the Mitre Tavern. By commissioning these engravings, the society defined its research agenda in terms of preservation, visual documentation, and collecting. The first secretary,William Stukeley, recorded at the first meeting that the society was formed “with a design at their own charge to collect and print and keep exact Registers . . . of all Antient Monuments that come into their hands” (qtd. in Evans 1956: 58). John Talman, the first director, was later credited with the original idea of publishing a series of prints (Evans 1956: 62n7). Fellows of the society received a copy of each engraving as a benefit of membership and additional copies went to book- and printsellers.

By 1747, 70 engravings had been published, enough to form a volume. The second volume, with 55 more plates, appeared in 1789. Beginning with Plate XX (1763), the editors began to include letterpress “explanations of the plates” with each engraving or subset of engravings, instead of including text in the form of a caption or on the plate itself. (Some essays on the objects depicted were also written before 1763, but these were published separately.) These explanations considerably swelled the size of the volumes, and not coincidentally the Society launched its second serial publication, the learned journal Archaeologia, at about the same time (1770). Volume III, the last volume included here, was published in 1796 with 44 plates and about 200 pages of letterpress.

During its first fifty years of publication, the most important figure involved with Vetusta Monumenta was the engraver George Vertue (1684-1756), who was also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. During the rest of the eighteenth century, the central figure was Richard Gough (1735-1809), who became Director of the Society of Antiquaries in 1768. After Vertue, there were no engravers in the Society, which was by now more expensive to join and more genteel in its composition. Gough’s predecessor hired the engraver James Basire (Sr), whose workshop (later led by James Basire Jr) created all the engravings for Vetusta Monumenta from 1765 as well as hundreds of engravings for Archaeologia, the society’s Cathedral Series (1795-1810), and individual publications by members. The last of Vertue’s plates (I.XX) was published posthumously in 1763 and the engraving work passed to Basire in 1765 (XXI-II).