In the late 1700s, an interest in the study of British history and other antiquarian pursuits was the mark of a gentleman and a patriot, and many topographical books of the day reflect the increasing public interest in ancient remains. These illustrations all come from Francis Grose’s The antiquities of England and Wales, published between 1772 and 1776 and aimed at the popular market of interested readers who perhaps had neither the means nor the inclination to visit the sites in person.
Grose’s topographical engravings are notable not just for the ancient ruins they depict in skillful detail but also for their “staffage”, the little figures invariably included for scale or atmosphere who are shown exploring the site or simply going about their daily business – men fishing in the rivers, scholars chatting by the chapel, and tiny milkmaids chased by angry livestock! But by far the most common figures to be found in these prints are the gentlemen dandies with their ever-present pointy sticks…
By the end of the 18th century, a rigid cane had replaced the sword as an essential part of the discerning gentleman’s wardrobe. Walking sticks became an important indicator of social status and a way for a gentleman to display his wealth; usually made from rattan, sticks were elaborately and expensively crafted with silver, ivory or jeweled handles. As the highways of the late 1700s still held some dangers for the lone traveller, walking sticks often retained the sword’s function as a defensive weapon, and canes with blades or even pistols hidden in the shaft were common. As these pictures show, however, the most important use of a gentleman’s walking stick was to point out matters of interest to a friend, a lady companion, or even the occasional dog!
Francis Grose (1731-1791) himself was an interesting character. A soldier by trade, he was far more inclined to his work as an antiquary and spent his summers sketching medieval ruins around the country. The first part of The antiquities of England and Wales was published in 1772 and was followed by three more volumes and a supplement with illustrations by other artists. While touring Scotland to begin work on The antiquities of Scotland, Captain Grose became close friends with Robert Burns and the poet composed Tam O’Shanter to accompany Grose’s drawing of Alloway Kirk when the book was published in 1791.