Antiquarians Gone to Pot

Have you ever heard of a curator obsessed with candle snuffers? How about a reenactor who can talk about buttons but not battles? Or a historian who can drone on about the Great Wagon Road but has never heard of the TSA?

Of course you have. The history-minded, professional and otherwise, have long been accused of favoring carefully selected bits of the past over any part of the present.

One eighteenth-century observer of this obsession was Francis Grose, author of the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, Advice to the Officers of the British Army, and Rules For Drawing Caricaturas, With an Essay On Comic Painting, who was an antiquarian himself (he was fun in the archives and the tavern). Grose published a satirical print in 1770 showing an assemblage of antiquarians paying rapt attention to a rather commonplace chamber pot. This print (the first one below) was copied, plagiarized, and even re-released by Grose himself over the next few decades. Evidently it was funny (or accurate) enough to satirize veneration in a series of prints caricaturing human passions.

In a twist of history that even Grose and his co-caricaturists didn’t see coming, these satires (and their contemporaneous chamber pots) are now among the objects of antiquarian veneration. In fact you can still find the history obsessed reenacting similar scenes in the storage areas of museums and archives throughout the world – hunched over the remnants of history, enthralled by other people’s old shit.

Antiquarians. Francis Grose, c. 1770.


The Antiquarians. Anonymous, 1772


The Antiquarians puzzled, or the Chamber Pot Consultation. Philip Dawe, 1773


Antiquarians peeping into Boadicia’s night urn. Francis Grose, c. 1788


The Antiquerers. Anonymous after Grose, 1770s-1780s.


Veneration. Thomas Rowlandson, 1800.

This Passion is represented by an Antiquarian, contemplating an Unique.


About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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