CHESTNUT HILL - “Antiquaries’’ is an antiquarian sort of word. It sounds old-fashioned and dusty - eccentric even. Antiquaries are both less and more than historians. They’re less, in that they’re traditionally amateurs rather than academics. They’re more, in that they bring an enthusiasm for the richness and romance of the past that a more scholarly approach would lack.
Richness and romance (enthusiasm, too) abound in “Making History: Antiquaries in Britain,’’ a quietly spectacular exhibition that runs at Boston College’s McMullen Museum of Art through Dec. 11. The show consists of more than 100 items from the Society of Antiquaries of London, supplemented by 32 more from the Yale Center for British Art (“Making History’’ goes to New Haven after its Chestnut Hill run). Those items are like the contents of the attic of an aristocratic country house - and what contents, what an attic.
This is the first time works from the society have been shown in North America. Founded in 1707, it observes the 250th anniversary of its royal charter this year. That charter describes the society’s mission as “the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries.’’
It’s only British items that are on display at the McMullen. Not that that’s much of a limitation. The contents range in date from the Lower Paleolithic Era (a handaxe) to 2003 (a time-lapse video showing Stonehenge from inside the circle of monoliths), and in prominence from a copy of Magna Carta to a lowly set of bookbinding tools. The latter are lovely as well as lowly, a reminder of how much beauty there is in utility.
Those tools belonged to William Morris, who used them for binding his Kelmscott Chaucer. Morris is among several well-known artists with items in the show. They include Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, William Blake (a drawing and a watercolor attributed to him - they don’t look all that Blakean), A.W. Pugin, Inigo Jones, J.M.W. Turner.
Turner is represented by a watercolor and an engraving, both quite early, and thus quite uncharacteristically subdued. The detailing on the engraving is rather phenomenal - a welcome reminder that the revolutionary colorist was also a highly skilled draftsman.
There are obscure names, too, of course - in those cases where the artist’s or craftsman’s name is in fact known. Who was Baptista Boazio? His hand-colored engraving “The Famous West Indian Voyadge made by the English Fleete,’’ from 1589, demonstrates a use of color Turner might have envied.
The most extraordinary thing in a show that boasts many is a vellum roll from the 15th century. It details Henry VI’s genealogical descent from Adam and Eve. The “Roll Chronicle’’ is a cross between a medieval manuscript (the delicacy and beauty of the inked-in names and accompanying illustrations) and a modern-day informational graphic. The fact that it was later updated to include subsequent English monarchs through Charles II suggests how seriously it was taken as a historical document.
There are multiple royal portraits (paintings of commoners, too, of course), books, maps, manuscripts, prints, watercolors, caricatures, tapestries, drawings, armor. Such variety is meat and drink to the antiquarian sensibility, with its magpie mania for a patinated miscellany.
A jousting cheque, from 1520, is a kind of scorecard for knightly tournaments. The fineness of its colors remains undimmed nearly half a millennium after its making. Perhaps the most charming item in the show is an 18th-century ballot box. It’s the society’s own, made of mahogany, brass, and ivory, with cork balls for voting. They’d be placed in a “yea’’ drawer or a “no’’ drawer.’’ It looks like a rudimentary slide projector - or small sawed-off cannon.
History is the main concern here, of course, not beauty. But so many of the items are very beautiful indeed. A hand-colored engraving from 1610 of a map of the English county of Suffolk “described and divided into hundreds’’ turns geography into art. “Making History’’ might equally well have been called “Making Art,’’ as along the way it raises larger questions concerning form/content and art/history. Where does one end and the other begin?
A reliquary made of enameled copper from the late 12th century meant to store the remains of St. Thomas Becket is a case in point. The object is deeply pleasing aesthetically. Its intended purpose is fascinating. The historical connection is significant. Even the provenance is notable. Sir William Hamilton, the husband of Lord Nelson’s mistress, who had acquired it in Naples (how did it end up there?), gave it to the society in 1801. All of these aspects have their place in making the reliquary so remarkable.
Or there’s the 1612 portrait of an Elizabethan antiquary, Sir John Dodderidge. It’s not much of a painting, and its subject merits relatively little mention in the history of his time. Worse, Dodderidge looks doddering indeed. He might be taken as the very model of the standard view of his not-so-modern type. This remarkable show reminds us how much we are in the debt of the company of Dodderidges for all they amassed and kept alive. For want of a nail, any fool can make history. It takes a very special sort, though, to preserve it.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.