Francis Grose, by Francesco Bartolozzi after Nathaniel Dance.

Captain Francis Grose – populariser of antiquities

John Farrant takes a look at the work of 18th-century antiquarian Captain Francis Grose, whose hobby for making sketches – many of which are now in the collections of the British Library – culminated in the publication of works on the antiquities of Britain.

Francis Grose (1731–91) published the 18th century’s most extensive series of illustrations of ancient monuments. A thousand plates with accompanying descriptions, based on his and others’ views and researches, appeared in the 10 volumes of The Antiquities of England and Wales (1772–76, Supplement, 1777–87), of Scotland (1789–91) and of Ireland (1791–95).

Undecided what profession to follow, Grose in his early years had the makings of the dilettante antiquary. At the age of 40, however, he was inspired to respond to widening interest in British antiquities and to make the remains of the past more intelligible and accessible to his lay readers. Financial necessity later drove him harder. While he may not have advanced the scholarly projects of learned antiquaries, he had an uncommon breadth of conception of what antiquarian studies should embrace. Well equipped by an amiable personality, Grose was as able to collect dialect among the rank and file of the Army, as to examine the curios of the gentry. By doing so, he contributed significantly to the study of slang and folklore and of military antiquities, as well as to popular appreciation of the medieval monuments of Britain.

When The Antiquities started to appear in 1772, Samuel and Nathaniel Buck’s Views of the Ruins of Castles and Abbeys in England and Wales (428 plates, 1726–42) was the only sizeable collection of its sort in print. The dedication to a grand patron took precedence over any description of the ruin in the narrow space on the engraved plate beneath the view, never more than 200 words and usually fewer. Grose’s views, though much smaller, were similar in character, as panoramas of medieval structures to convey the maximum information, rather than interesting compositions or illustrations of details. Grose’s novelty was to publish text with the views, typically about 600 words.

To meet Grose’s debts at his death, his family auctioned his library and pictures, and those pictures now traceable are widely scattered. King George III’s librarians bought several lots of views, mainly in Kent and Sussex. These are now in the British Library, along with some pictures Grose made for William Burrell, two volumes which were likely to have been acquired from booksellers (one of views in Scotland and Ireland, the other of notes on four tours in 1775–77), and a few other pictures.

Grose was born in 1731, the son of a jeweller, an immigrant from Switzerland, who traded in the City of London and retired to Richmond in Surrey. He first looked to the Army for a career. In early 1747 he saw the final campaign of the War of the Austrian Succession in Flanders and obtained a commission in November 1748. He resigned in October 1751, just as his regiment was ordered to Scotland, probably because he was by then married to the daughter of a vintner in Canterbury. In 1755 his father bought him the place of Richmond Herald, but Grose showed no great taste for heraldry and sold it in 1763. As early as 1749 though, he was sketching medieval buildings in Kent, and in the mid-1750s attended William Shipley’s drawing school in London.

St Mildred's Church, and the old castle, at Canterbury

St Mildred's Church, and the Old Castle, at Canterbury, by Francis Grose.

Grose's earliest surviving drawing, this view in Canterbury dates to 1755.

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Joining the militia enabled him again to don uniform while avoiding distant postings. In times of war, the militia was ‘embodied’ in regiments from each county for home defence, and in November 1759 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Surrey Regiment and appointed adjutant and paymaster of its 2nd (Western) Battalion. Before being disembodied in December 1762, the Surrey Militia marched to and fro across southern England, often to patrol the coast against smugglers. But he had ample opportunity to sketch, with, unsurprisingly, a strong emphasis on castles. As adjutant, Grose continued to receive a salary in peacetime, and promotion to captain in 1765 gave him the title by which he was commonly to be known.

Pevensey Castle, Sussex

Pevensey Castle, Sussex, by Francis Grose.

Grose visited Pevensey Castle as a member of the Surrey Militia in the summer of 1762.

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Now living in Wandsworth, Surrey, Grose sketched in the vicinity and on social visits to relatives. In London, though only an indifferent draughtsman, he mixed with professional and amateur artists, and exhibited at the Society of Artists in 1767–68 and at the Royal Academy in the nine years following. His first published pictures were etchings in the second edition of his brother John Henry’s A Voyage to the East Indies (1766). His militia salary, together with inheritances from his parents and on his wife’s death in 1774, gave him the means to maintain his family in comfort, with prudent management.

So hope of profit may not have motivated Grose’s Antiquities of England and Wales. His purpose was popular, ‘for the use of such as are desirous of having, without much trouble, a general knowledge of the subjects treated in this publication’, and a similar motive guided his contributions to the periodical Antiquarian Repertory (1775–86). The first part of the Antiquities appeared in February or March 1772, with each view and its descriptive text on a separate page, at a price per view one third of the Bucks’. Parts comprising six views each appeared initially at roughly monthly intervals, and periodically a title-page and introduction were issued to signal completion of a volume. For the reader, what views comprised a 'part' was haphazard, following no geographical pattern (as had the Bucks’) but being what was ready for printing.

The Antiquities of England and Wales

St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, from The Antiquities of England and Wales, vol. 3.

Originally published in over 100 parts, The Antiquities is one of the most important antiquarian publications of the 18th century.

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Having promised to cover the whole of England and Wales, Grose did not have material at the outset to satisfy his subscribers for long. He was on a treadmill, drafting text to accompany views already to hand, travelling to sketch new views, recruiting collaborators willing and able to provide views and information for the text, and reducing his and their views as grey-wash ‘cartoons’ for the engraver to copy. From 1772 he was touring to make sketches which were engraved and published within a few months, and was borrowing pictures from friends, particularly John Inigo Richards, Paul Sandby, and, from 1774, Moses Griffiths. Sometimes the accompanying text came almost entirely (with acknowledgement) from published books, or from fellow antiquaries; in other cases Grose was in correspondence to collect material from which he could draft.

Ironically, in 1774, just when Grose was touring most for views, someone else was seizing on each part as it appeared for another project. In the previous year, Empress Catherine II of Russia, ‘Catherine the Great’, had ordered from Josiah Wedgwood for her summer palace a 50-place dinner service, the ‘Green Frog Service’. Each of 952 pieces was to be hand-painted with a view of Britain. In February 1774 Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood’s partner in charge of the design studio in London, bought every one of Grose’s views already published in parts 1 to 25, and then took subsequent parts on issue, until the service was completed on 6 August, using 122 of the 183 views in parts 1 to 33. Grose or his publisher even allowed Bentley access to views engraved but unpublished and to cartoons awaiting engraving, indeed to two which were never engraved.

Part 60, with a set of 33 plans, brought to a close the fourth volume, and with it, the project to cover the whole of England and Wales as had been announced by Grose, but only until he started publishing the Supplement a year later. This reached three parts before a lengthy interruption.

Diary of a tour in Sussex

Diary of a Tour in Sussex, by Francis Grose.

Francis Grose recorded his tour of Sussex with fellow antiquarian William Burrell in his journal.

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The cause of this interruption was the militia’s embodiment from March 1778 to February 1783. Grose did not enjoy this active service. Firstly, the Surrey militia functioned as a single battalion, so increasing his responsibilities. Most of the summers – the prime time for antiquarian tours – were now spent in camp with other corps for training. Secondly, his easy relationship with the previous commanding officer, George Onslow, was lacking with Jeremiah Hodges, who was the target of some biting satire in Grose’s Advice to the Officers of the British Army (1782). Thirdly, his haphazard management of the regiment’s finances landed him in substantial debt to his fellow officers: so much so as to shape the rest of his life.

Grose gave up the large house in Wandsworth for lodgings at Clement’s Inn, just west of the City of London, and then nearby with his publisher Samuel Hooper, now being a regular and genial participant in the Society of Antiquaries, to which he had been elected in 1757. The sympathetic sketch by Nathaniel Dance engraved in 1787 shows the stocky, corpulent figure which Grose himself caricatured.

Portrait of Francis Grose

Francis Grose, by Francesco Bartolozzi after Nathaniel Dance.

Nathaniel Dance's portrait of Grose was used as the frontispiece to his Supplement to The Antiquities of England and Wales (1787).

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From 1783 he published in a torrent to make a living. The Supplement to the Antiquities was resumed, with a greater proportion of views from other artists, particularly S H Grimm, and was completed with 309 plates in 1787. This and the main series were reissued in a smaller format in 1783–87, at half the price. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) and A Provincial Glossary, with a Collection of Local Proverbs, and Popular Superstitions (1787) were at the time the largest assemblage of ‘non-standard’ words or meanings, containing about 9,000 items omitted from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary; they drew on Grose’s fieldwork as far back as the 1750s. The first parts of two other pioneering works appeared in 1786: Military Antiquities and A Treatise on Ancient Armour. Both relied mainly on Grose's specialist library and the armouries at the Tower of London, but also included observations on military music from the 1740s. Of more popular appeal was Rules for Drawing Caricaturas: with an Essay on Comic Painting (1788).

By now Grose must have exhausted for publication the stock of sketches and notes which he had accumulated over 40 years. He returned to touring, even though, (as he said in a volume of satirical essays, The Grumbler, 1791), he was too fat to ride a horse and too poor to keep a carriage. The Antiquities of Scotland was compiled with tours in 1788, 1789, and 1790 with publication completed in April 1791. In summer 1789, he became firm friends with Robert Burns and the subject of some witty verses by Burns, whom Grose inspired to write ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ to accompany a drawing of Alloway kirk printed in The Antiquities.

Drawings for The Antiquities of Scotland (1789–91) and The Antiquities of Ireland (1791–96)

County Mayo, Furin Lough from Sir Richard Musgraves, by Francis Grose.

The Antiquities of Scotland and of Ireland were Grose's final publications.

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Work began on The Antiquities of Ireland in 1790. It was to be completed by his nephew Daniel and Dr Edward Ledwich in 1796, for on his second visit Grose died in Dublin of an apoplectic fit. One newspaper, the St James’s Chronicle (26 May 1791), suggested his epitaph should read:


On Thursday, May 12, 1791,

Death put an end to his

Views and Prospects.

  • John Farrant
  • John Farrant is a local historian who has published, mainly on Sussex, for over 45 years. In recent years his focus has been on historiography very broadly defined, reflected in Sussex Depicted. Views and descriptions 1600–1800 (2001) and ‘Prelude to Piltdown: Charles Dawson's origins, career and antiquarian pursuits, 1864–1911, and their repercussions’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, 151 (2013). His career was in higher education management.

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