The Society of Antiquaries

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The Society of Antiquaries celebrated its tercentenary in fine style on 25th April 2007 with a contested election for president.

Contested elections are not common at the Antiquaries; the most recent was in 1959 when Joan Evans won out over Ian Richmond, and prior to that, in 1812.   What made the 2007 election so complicated was the fact that it was thrown open as a postal ballot, and 900 of the 2200 fellows cast their votes, which overwhelmed the scrutineers. Normally, the election closes at 3.45 pm after which the fellows go to tea, and when the old president rises to give his final presidential address at 5:00 pm he is able to announce the results of the ballot. This year was different. At 5:00 pm the president, Professor Eric Fernie, rose to announce that the counting was not yet complete and went on to deliver his excellent address. At the end, counting was still not complete, and so at 6:00 pm the Fellows began their drinks party. It was then announced that the results were not expected until at least 7:30 pm, and some fellows began to drift away. At 8:00 pm some of the scrutineers had to catch their last trains, and volunteers were called for to help out in the counting. At 9:00 pm the Geological Society, in whose rooms the meeting was held as the Antiquaries’ own lecture theatre is being redecorated, said they would have to throw us out, so we trooped across the courtyard of Burlington House and entered the premises through the back door and made our way past the redecorations to the library on the first floor — which is still intact. Here we continued drinking until eventually at 9:45 pm, Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, the ex-president who had been driving through the counting of the votes, brought in the first results.*

The problem was not in counting the votes for the president — that was comparatively easy. The problem lay in counting the votes for members of the council, where 15 names had to be selected from a list of 20. The important contest was for president, where the council nominee, Geoffrey Wainwright, was opposed by Professor John Barron.

The basis of the dispute lies in the problems of the cost of the premises. Ever since the construction of Burlington House in the 1870s, the society had occupied the premises rent-free, as they had their previous rooms in Somerset House. However, in the 1990s the Government announced that it was proposing to charge rent, and after enormous discussions and legal disputes the society eventually agreed to pay rent and maintenance costs in the region of £50,000 a year. The council believed that this was bearable — just — though they have launched a fundraising campaign, and had previously decided to try to increase the number of fellows from 2000 to 3000.

But a dissident faction led by Martin Biddle felt that the liabilities were being underestimated; there is not only rent to pay, but the tenants have to pay for the costs of the refurbishment and maintenance of the premises. The Government is paying for the current external renovation, but future renovations must be paid for by the society. The rebels also express disquiet over the current accounts, which show an operating deficit of £216,519; however the Treasurer points out that the Society has investments of over £11m, and if the investment gains of £845,000 are taken into account, the overall ‘Net movement in funds’ comes to £628,000. There were other points of unease, notably a strategic or development plan where the interests of the fellows were placed as the last of the four objectives, and the fellows were told that they were to be ‘developed’ — a somewhat unhappy turn of phrase.

All this led to a revolt, led by Martin Biddle, a Vice President. The council put up current Treasurer, Geoffrey Wainwright, for the new president; he is well known to archaeologists as being a distinguished excavator, till recently the Chief Archaeologist of English Heritage and the ‘father’ of PPG16, the scheme to make developers pay for the costs of rescue excavations.

The rebels put up an equally distinguished candidate, John Barron, who after a career as Professor of Greek and pro-Vice Chancellor at London University, became Master at St Peter’s College Oxford from 1991-2003. He had a distinguished list of nominees including: John Cherry, Sir John Boardman, Kenneth Painter and Michael Tite. Eventually when the votes were counted, Geoffrey Wainwright was declared the new president by 504 votes to 418.

The Society was founded in 1707, so it is time for the new council to devote itself to the major task ahead of celebrating its tercentenary. The main feature of the celebration will be a major exhibition of some of the treasures it has accumulated. These will be displayed next door in the rooms at the Royal Academy, from 15th September to 2nd December under the title ‘Making History: Antiquaries in Britain 1707-2007‘. The costs of laying on the exhibition are estimated to be in the region of £500,000, which it will hopefully recoup from entrance fees and grants. The task of the new Council and President is to ensure that the exhibition is a success.

* Sir Barry was more efficient than his predecessors of 1812, when future Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen (‘a very good toast-master’ … but ‘stupidest of all stupids’) won out against Sir Henry Englefield who was not only a Catholic, but had taken a strong line in the attack on Wyatt’s restorations. On this occasion 435 fellows voted, 251 of them for Aberdeen. Here once again counting was not finished by 5:00 pm, so the ballot boxes and the doors of the meeting room were sealed to allow the Fellows to dine. The scrutators then returned at 7:00 pm and went on counting till 11:00 pm, when the boxes were again sealed and the counting finished next morning. We were lucky.

This opinion comes from CA issue 210

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