Tracing the past
An artist and engraver who specialised in pen and ink work, John Harris created a set of tracing boards that are still used in ritual today
The principles of Freemasonry are communicated using symbols during the ceremonies and then afterwards by illustrated lectures. Early lodges used to draw these motifs on the floor of their lodge room and wash them off after the meeting. By the late 1700s, floor cloths and symbolic tablets for the master’s pedestal were being used. Then from the early 1800s a set of three tracing boards in a variety of sizes and materials became the standard, to help to illustrate one of the three ceremonies.
Royal Arch chapters do not usually employ tracing boards, but some older chapters do have them. These examples were produced by John Harris (1791-1873) along with his Craft versions, but were not adopted as the former were.
A LIFE OF DEVOTION
Harris was an artist and engraver who specialised in pen and ink facsimile work, notably for the British Museum, but he is best known to Freemasonry as a designer of tracing boards. He became a Freemason in 1818 and by 1820 was selling his designs of portable miniature tracing boards. In 1825 he dedicated, with permission, a set of miniature Craft boards to the Grand Master, the Duke of Sussex. This was taken as an official seal of approval and helped to increase sales.
In 1845, the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, which is the largest masonic ritual association, organised a competition to design a standardised set of boards to be used in all lodges that worked Emulation ritual. Harris won the competition and his boards can be seen in every Emulation ritual book published today.
In later life, Harris suffered from ill health and blindness. He moved into the Asylum for Worthy, Aged, and Decayed Freemasons, later the Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution, in Croydon. He is buried with his wife Mary in the town’s Queen’s Road Cemetery, Croydon. His grave was recently rediscovered and the Provincial Grand Lodge of Surrey, which now owns the plot, has provided the grave with a new headstone.
You can find several examples of Harris’s tracing boards at the Library and Museum of Freemasonry.
John Harris is the predominant name in Tracing Boards and his designs are to be seen across the country and indeed the world
He lived from 1791-1873 and is best known for the Boards he painted for Emulation Lodge of Improvement (ELoI) in 1845. They measure six feet by three feet and are still used today.
In the 1850s, Harris suffered a series of strokes which left him blind. Unable to work, he and his wife Mary were some of the earliest residents of the first masonic Old People’s Home. Built in Croydon in 1850, it went by the name of the Asylum for Aged, Worthy and Decayed Freemasons, and was the prototype RMBI home.
A Croydon Freemason, Forbes Cutler, recently searched for and discovered John Harris’s unmarked grave in a Croydon cemetery. To his dismay, the grave was about to ‘reclaimed’ by the local council. To prevent this, he bought the plot from Queen’s Road Cemetery and lodges and chapters donated money to erect a fitting headstone.
On 18th September 2018, a service of memorial was conducted by the Revered Timothy L’Estrange and the headstone was unveiled. Croydon Masonic Centre was filled for a meeting to commemorate the life of the man whose work has influenced masons for the last 200 years.
Those present included Ian Chandler, Provincial Grand Master for Surrey, and Dr David Staples, Grand Secretary and CEO of UGLE. Graham Redman, Deputy Grand Secretary of UGLE and a senior member of ELoI, brought with him one of ELoI’s original 1845 Harris Tracing Boards. John Harris was, belatedly, given the send-off he merited, surrounded by his lodges and chapter and in the company of Freemason he so loved.
The deeds of the plot now belong to Freemasonry, the headstone has been erected, and John Harris and his wife Mary will continue to rest in peace.
Every lodge in the English Constitution has a tracing board for each of the three degrees. What is their point? Do they actually add anything to our study of masonic symbols and allegories? Would the lessons imparted by each of the three degree ceremonies be any less complete without the tracing boards?