From Hogarth’s satirical engravings through to membership certificates designed by Mucha, historian Lucy Inglis discovers how artists have responded over the centuries to the principles, symbolism and patronage of Freemasonry
An exhibition held in the Library and Museum at Freemasons’ Hall, Encounters: Artists and Freemasonry Over 300 Years seeks to bring together artists who have made significant contributions to the art associated with Freemasonry. In some cases, these are images and objects, such as books of instruction and jewels involved in masonic ceremonies. Elsewhere, abstract interpretations of masonic symbolism add a further element to the range of art on offer.
The exhibition begins in earnest at the start of the eighteenth century, when the formation of the first Grand Lodge led to the publication of Constitutions (official rule books) and lists of lodges featuring detailed engravings. The Constitutions and lists were sanctioned by the Grand Lodge of England and the artists employed on their design used biblical imagery and references to classical architecture to stress a view that Freemasonry, even in the 1720s, had a long lineage. This early series, showing work by Sir James Thornhill and John Pine in particular, is dominated by superb examples of William Hogarth’s contentious contributions to the masonic artistic canon.
Appearing on the register of a lodge on Little Queen Street, Hogarth was a Freemason by 1725. Despite being part of the brotherhood, he defaulted to his trademark satirical social commentary with The Mystery of Masonry Brought to Light by the Gormogons (1724). Typical of Hogarth, the Gormogons depicts real people, including James Anderson, author of the Constitutions, who is shown with his head through the rungs of a ladder, apparently engaged in kissing the buttocks of an aged crone in mocking reference to his attempts to regularise Freemasonry. Also featured is Hogarth’s Night (1738), showing Sir Thomas de Veil, a vocal critic of London’s gin trade, as an inebriated Master.
There is a strong showing of later eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century masonic art, culminating in significant works by Alphonse Mucha. The jewels and apron he designed are intriguing, while the large-scale membership certificate is particularly striking.
‘artists used biblical imagery and references to classical architecture to stress a view that Freemasonry had a long lineage’
When the Republic of Czechoslovakia was formed as an independent state in 1918, Mucha’s art played a key role in forming the state’s new identity. He even designed its new banknotes and postage stamps.
The work of Alvin Langdon Coburn will be new to many visitors. Coburn was born in Massachusetts in 1882 and took up photography at the age of eight. In his late thirties, after exhibiting successfully in New York and London, he moved to North Wales and in 1919 became a Freemason, embracing the organisation wholeheartedly. His portrait of US President Theodore Roosevelt is the most striking and well known of his photographs shown at the exhibition, although Coburn was not yet a Freemason when the image was captured in 1907.
Of the modern art featured in this exhibition, two artists are particularly prominent. Trevor Frankland, Master of Philbrick Lodge, No. 2255, in Essex in 1994, contributed (before his death in 2011) two pieces representing the journey of the Ashlar: a screen print called Ashlars in the Making (undated) and a large-scale work on wood and hardboard named The Perfect Ashlar (1972). The Perfect Ashlar has depth and layered interest well suited to its subject matter.
Yanko Bonev, a sculptor born in north-eastern Bulgaria and a former Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Bulgaria, also contributed large-scale pieces of modern art. After an early career in monumental public sculpture, he became a Freemason when the organisation was introduced to Bulgaria in the 1990s and turned his hand to smaller bronzes.
This is an exhibition that has been painstakingly put together and is adroitly pitched at the visitor who may not have considered the strong links between art and Freemasonry before. It also contains hidden depths for those with more detailed knowledge of the rites and rituals of Freemasonry and their associated histories. There is much here to discover.
Encounters: Artists and Freemasonry Over 300 Years runs until 20 September 2013, Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm. Freemasonry Today would like to thank Martin Cherry for his assistance in putting this article together.
‘this exhibition contains hidden depths for those with more detailed knowledge of the rites and rituals of Freemasonry’