Putting a price on scholarship

Charles Saumarez Smith on the battle to safeguard the future of some of Britain’s oldest and best-known learned societies

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Few of the many thousands of people who visit exhibitions at the Royal Academy pay much attention, as they cross the courtyard, to the headquarters of the learned societies given premises there in the early 1860s as part of an effort to make London feel more than just a commercial city, one which also had research, scholarship and learning at its heart. 

The buildings that house them were designed in a grand and deliberately unobtrusive way by the architectural firm Banks and Barry, led by Robert Richardson Banks, who had worked for Sir Charles Barry Sr on the design of the Houses of Parliament, and Charles Barry Jr, his oldest son.

 In the north-western corner, scarcely noticeable in summer behind a stall selling cakes and ice-creams, there is a door leading to the headquarters of the Society of Antiquaries, the oldest of these learned societies, founded in 1707 by a small group of scholars and librarians who met together in the Bear Tavern in the Strand, to discuss issues of mutual interest, mainly things medieval — manuscripts, tombs and old churches — but also Roman and Anglo-Saxon remains scattered round the English and Scottish countryside.

Ten years later, the society was re-established on a much firmer footing with a proper constitution and regular meetings at which minutes were taken, which still survive. They embarked on a more systematic study of Roman and medieval Britain, and were the first people to be seriously interested in the preservation of medieval buildings, including putting wooden crash barriers round Waltham Cross in 1721. Their studies meant that both Avebury and Stonehenge, regarded as Druid monuments, were studied and ultimately saved. Their interests were at least as much archaeological as historical, concerned with “things” more than documents — heraldry, genealogy, portraits, tomb sculpture, all of which they collected as well as studied. 

By 1751, the society was sufficiently well established to be given a Royal Charter for “the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries”, more or less at the same time as the foundation of the British Museum. There were thoughts that the society might be housed there, but in 1780, the society was regarded as so important that it was instead given rooms alongside the Royal Academy and the Royal Society in Somerset House, designed by William Chambers to replace the old royal palace on the Strand.

George III was keen on the study of the past, as was the brother of the prime minister, Lord North. Brownlow North, Bishop of Worcester and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, was able to lobby his brother on the society’s behalf. They were given a large upstairs meeting room at the top of the grand staircase now occupied by the Courtauld Institute, where they held their weekly meetings, and a relatively small room next to the entrance hall to accommodate their library.

In the nineteenth century, the study of history became increasingly professionalised, less the province of clergymen writing in their spare time, more the work of full-time writers and professional historians. But alongside the professional historians such as Macaulay and Carlyle, who based their studies only on literary sources, were hosts of amateur historians, many of them happy to be known as antiquaries, who pursued what we would now regard as local history. 

The Society of Antiquaries by Joseph John Jenkins (1811-1885)

The Society of Antiquaries supported and fertilised their interests through a programme of regular scholarly papers and the publication of the journal Archaeologia — encouraging the study of tombs and medieval remains, hearing papers on flints and bronze implements, supporting the excavation of Roman barrows, trying to prevent the architect, James Wyatt, from restoring cathedrals, including Salisbury, Lichfield, Hereford and Durham, too radically. Landowners such as Richard Colt Hoare turned to the study of the archaeology of their surroundings at a time when travel on the continent was difficult. The society commissioned engravings of the Bayeux Tapestry and the study of antiquity extended to Egypt.

By the 1850s, the growth of government was putting pressure on the civil service departments housed in offices on either side of the courtyard in Somerset House. Gladstone, as chancellor of the exchequer, had the idea of buying Burlington House, one of the last remaining great aristocratic mansions on Piccadilly, to provide space for the learned societies — not just the triumvirate of the Royal Society, the Royal Academy and the Society of Antiquaries from Somerset House but some of the newer societies which had grown up in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the Linnaean Society, founded in 1788 in honour of the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus, whose collections it houses; the Geological Society, founded in 1808; and the Royal Astronomical Society, founded in 1820. 

It was taken for granted the government would pay for the building. The Royal Society was very keen and moved into Burlington House in 1857. The Society of Antiquaries was more cautious, initially not seeing any particular benefit in relocation; but it co-operated with the architects, Banks and Barry, who were recruited to draw up plans. A decade followed in which there was endless argument as to what space could and should be occupied by the respective beneficiaries of the site. Then Sydney Smirke realised that it would be possible to build the new exhibition galleries the Royal Academy so badly needed at the back of Burlington House. The Academy under Sir Francis Grant, its business-like president, insisted on a 999-year lease.

The Society of Antiquaries got most of what it had asked for and been promised: a new lecture room on the ground floor which is still used for its regular meetings and another room on the ground floor, which was originally the secretary’s dining room and is now used as its council room.

A grand staircase leads up to a tall and spacious library, whch accommodates students and the society’s now very substantial collections of books, prints and manuscripts; and a residence with a separate entrance for its secretary, much of which has now been converted into offices. 

The society of Antiquaries was part of the movement which led to the passing of the Ancient Monuments Act in 1882

It finally moved into its new headquarters in January 1875. Its then president, Lord Stanhope, must have assumed in a very English way that the premises would be occupied on the same basis as those in Somerset House, without being expected to pay rent, only assuming the cost of maintaining and developing the library. This was a mark of the goodwill that the government felt towards the society’s support for research and scholarship, but nothing was in writing.

Once ensconced in Burlington House, the study of the past and the activities of the Society of Antiquaries, which had been dominated by a romantic sensibility in the first half of the nineteenth century, dreaming of the lost spires of the Middle Ages, turned more earnest, archaeological, scholarly and academic — indeed, in common with its neighbours, more scientific. Instead of devoting its energies to the illustration and examination of medieval cathedrals and churches, it concentrated more on supporting the excavation of Roman remains at Silchester, Caerwent and Wroxeter. 

The society was part of the movement which led to the passing of the Ancient Monuments Act in 1882. Its officers, particularly Charles Peers, who was appointed secretary in 1908, not long before being appointed inspector of ancient monuments in the Office of Works, pioneered the meticulous, quasi-scientific preservation of castles, monasteries and archaeological remains. 

It is hard to remember a time when there were not public bodies like Historic England, but for many years, the task of recording and preserving historic buildings fell to the Society of Antiquaries.

Throughout the twentieth century, the society was an important part of the community of support for archaeology, medieval studies and historic conservation, uniting the work of professionals with amateurs who had a demonstrable interest in heraldry, genealogy, medieval architecture and local history. 

Archaeology became high-profile, helped by popular television programmes such as Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? and the 1950s show Buried Treasure, which made the archaeologists Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel into household names. Meanwhile, the interests of professional historians have moved away from high politics to the study of material culture, including clothing and housing, which have always been the province of the Society of Antiquaries. 

Ever since 1707, election as a fellow has been regarded as a badge of honour by amateur and professional alike, a mark of esteem within the community of scholarship.

One might have thought that, after 300 years, the future of the Society of Antiquaries was secure. But it has become the victim of changing government policy towards charging tenants of its buildings. This was first suggested in the 1990s, when the Government Efficiency Unit recommended that ownership should be vested in the relevant government department. 

It is one of those intractable problems which no one has been able to solve, including the judge at the hearing

In the case of Burlington House this was the then Department of the Environment, which considered vesting the building in a charitable trust, following the same model as was pursued very successfully both at Somerset House and the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. This would surely have been the most sensible solution. However, they couldn’t agree an appropriate valuation and eventually it went to court. Each of the societies was offered a ten-year lease at a discounted rent. This was agreed.

The Society of Antiquaries began to pay a very low rent, only £4,000 in 2012, which was supposed gradually to increase to a market rate over the next 80 years. The problems emerged when the lease was renewed. The Treasury had classified the building as an investment property and so now required the society to pay a commercial rent. Burlington House is in Mayfair, so, instead of a slow and gradual increase as had been promised, the rent was jacked up to £150,000 last year, an increase of 3,000 per cent. 

You might say, and there are no doubt people in the Treasury who would agree, that a charge of £150,000 per annum for spacious premises in central Mayfair is a bargain. The problem is that the Society of Antiquaries cannot afford it and now believes that it will have either have to sell works from its collection or move out. The first option would be a breach of its charitable objectives, and the second would mean that it would lose occupation of the headquarters which the government gave it in 1875.

So, what is the answer? It is one of those intractable problems which no one has been able to solve, including the judge at the court hearing. Each of the societies believes that it has a route into government, gets halfway in negotiations, only to hit a brick wall or the relevant minister is reshuffled. 

To solve the problem, one would first need to know the freehold value of the Grade II* listed property, which is not large enough to be converted to a hotel and would not easily lend itself to commercial offices. Most of it is a scholarly library and there are sitting tenants. In 2001 the government sold the old University of London building on Burlington Gardens to the RA for £4 million, so such transactions can be done by the Treasury. 

I assume the Society of Antiquaries could not be treated separately from the other learned societies — the Chemists, Linnaeans, Geologists and Astronomers — all of whom face a version of the same problem. It would not be sensible for one of the societies to leave the others in the lurch, not least because government would be faced with a version of the same issues five times over, which would be an absurd waste of its time and energies. 

A solution needs to be found as a matter of urgency in order to prevent the break-up of more than 300 years of history

So, let us say, for sake of argument, that the value of the properties round the courtyard as a whole is £25 million. Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, could, of course, ask each of the societies to find a percentage of the funds required. But it is extremely unlikely that this would work, because none of them could find the funds at all straightforwardly, except possibly the Royal Society of Chemistry, which is richer than the others, so may conceivably have funds in its reserves. 

£25 million is not a huge sum in terms of government finance. The only reasonably straightforward answer that I can see is for the societies to work together (not straightforward given the diversity of their intellectual concerns) to establish an independent trust which would have responsibility for the stewardship of the site as a whole and then ask the National Heritage Memorial Fund to provide a substantial proportion of the funds as a matter of urgency. 

It is, after all, exactly the sort of issue which the fund was set up to solve: an imminent disaster waiting to happen where the learned societies may have to vacate their premises one by one, move their libraries out, such that the fabric of knowledge which they represent, the community of scholarship, their inherited expertise, would be lost forever. 

The fund would need to be able to support the purchase of a lease rather than an object or work of art, but there are precedents for this, for example when the National Trust acquired Tyntesfield and when Wentworth Woodhouse was acquired by an independent trust in 2016. There will also be an issue of public access. But the libraries are all freely available to scholars and researchers on request. There are 3,000 fellows of the Society of Antiquaries, so it is not nearly as exclusive a membership as, for example, the RA, which is capped at 100. And the premises are already regularly open for Open House and interested groups, with plans to do more public events and teaching.

A solution needs to be found as a matter of urgency in order to prevent the break-up of more than 300 years of history, its professional study and community of support.

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