The Bodleian Plate

Sheer chance delivered a guiding light of Williamsburg's restoration. Hear the story of the Bodleian plate with Architectural Historian Carl Lounsbury. August 04, 2008


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

When the restoration of Williamsburg began in 1926, architects had only period maps, deeds and drawings to guide the reconstruction.

Three years later, an obscure copper plate emerged from the recesses of the Oxford Library in England, and changed everything. Called the Bodleian Plate, the information it held defined the face of Williamsburg.

Here with me now to tell us more about the Bodleian Plate is Carl Lounsbury, the senior architectural historian at Colonial Williamsburg.

I guess it is credited with really sort of being a guiding piece of information.

Carl Lounsbury: That's right. It's one of two major pieces of 18th-century imagery that have been the bibles for the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, the other being the Frenchman's Map, which has the blueprint of the town from the 1780s. This plate, this copper plate engraving that Mary Goodwin discovered, or came across, in the Bodleian Library in 1929, had the images of the major public buildings.

Lloyd: Define those.

Carl: Well, they included the College of William and Mary and its two flanking buildings: the President's House and the Brafferton, which was the Indian school. It had a sort of back view of it, an oblique back view of the college. It also had the frontal views of the governor's house, or the Governor's Palace, as well as a view of the Capitol.

Now, the Capitol and the Governor's Palace had disappeared. They had been destroyed in the late 18th century. So we really didn’t have a good image of those two buildings before this plate showed up.

Lloyd: Do we know who the artist was?

Carl: No we don't, we don't know who the artist is. There's an interesting book by my colleague, Margaret Pritchard, speculating how this plate actually shows up in the Bodleian Library. She speculates that it may have been commissioned by William Byrd II of Westover in Charles City County, who was a member of the Governor's council here in the early 18th century and was an author who wrote much about the natural history of Virginia and perhaps was writing a history of early America. These images were used to illustrate it. Not just one plate, but there was a series of about 10 plates showing flora and fauna as well as these public buildings here in Williamsburg.

Lloyd: The way you said that indicates that he never actually got it written.

Carl: He may have written it, but it hasn't been found.

Lloyd: I see. They're illustrations for a history that may or may not have been written.

Carl: Exactly. For example, his history of the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina – which was in 1728, was not published until the early 20th century. It was in manuscript form, and circulated that way for more than 150 years before it was actually published.

Lloyd: Was there much argument about the line between Virginia and North Carolina? Sort of a straight line, as I remember.

Carl: Well, it depends on where you draw that line, doesn't it. I'm from North Carolina originally, and we would have preferred to have drawn it a little bit further north.

Lloyd: Ah, well I would have preferred we drew it a little bit further south.

Carl: Well, those battles still take place.

Lloyd: So actually, to go back we don't know who drew it, and we don't really know why.

Carl: That's right.
Lloyd: We think, probably.

Carl: There is some very strong evidence for William Byrd as being the inspiration for these plates. They're numbered sequentially – A., and then Roman numeral one through Roman numeral 10. They're all dealing with American topics. Number one is what we call the Bodleian plate with the public buildings of Williamsburg. Number two is a very detailed map showing that dividing line. So Byrd was intimately involved in drawing that dividing line and so it seems logical and likely that he was the one that commissioned the drawing of these public buildings for the plate.

Lloyd: Let's see, Williamsburg in those days would have been one of the more prominent cities in the colonies, even though it's not now, but it was then.

Carl: Well, it was the capitol of the largest British colony in America, so it had a significance that extended far beyond its very small borders.

Lloyd: Tell you the truth, I don't really know what a copper plate looks like, what is a copper plate, and how would you recognize it?

Carl: Well, if you have a penny, and it's new, it looks very shiny and kind of brownish-reddish color. Copper is hammered out, a thin sheet which then can be engraved on by specialists who have tools that can cut lines into it.

It's sort of a reverse image of what the off-print, or the off-strike will be. So he sketches that in. So he probably has a sketch that he works from – the engraver – so there must have been an artist who sketched the buildings here in Williamsburg.

That's one thing we don’t know anything about. Who was capable of sketching those public buildings, then to send those to the engraver in London? We're fairly certain that it was a London engraver who did that. The engraver sometimes, as we know from looking at sketches and looking at the final copper plates, sometimes enhanced the drawings a little bit here, and cleaned them up, made them a little more artistic.

Lloyd: Can you see the Bodleain plate today?

Carl: Yes, it's on view here at Colonial Williamsburg.

Lloyd: It's not, I have read a description of it, and it does not sound to me much larger than an 8.5 by 10 sheet of paper.

Carl: It's slightly larger than that, but not much.

Lloyd: It really was to make illustrations, it wasn't just to show. It was a …

Carl: It was for a folio volume, that's right.

Lloyd: An engraver's tool.

Carl: Yeah. And they would then strike that and run a large number of them and interweave them into whatever publication it was.

Lloyd: So much in history was designed for something it was never used for. I mean, here you've got this plate that was just brilliant for the restoration or reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg, never served as an illustration so far as we know, from this history that a man intended to write.

You were, the restoration or reconstruction of Colonial Williamsburg was already being worked on. Did any of it change, that you know of, because the plate was found?

Carl: Well, in the lore of Colonial Williamsburg, the Bodleain plate looms large. In 1929 one of the major, major first reconstructions sort of testing the skills of the architects as well as the builders in this great enterprise was the restoration of the College of William and Mary.

That building, the so-called Wren building, was being restored at that time when Mary Goodwin discovered this plate. She radiogrammed it. I don't know what that is, but she sent some kind of modern-day fax transmission across the Atlantic Ocean, and it showed up and it changed the design for the college, specifically in the arrangement of the roof.

The front of the building was fairly well-known, but the back side, the west side with the arcade, had been changed considerably after a fire in 1705 and then later alterations in the 19th century. They weren't sure how to treat the arrangement of the roof under this broad span. What that plate showed was this series of what we call "rooflets" running at right angles to the main angle of the roof was the way that they did that. Which was very common in late 17th, early 18th century England, and so would not have been a surprise to us. But there it was, and so they completely scrapped their original designs and quickly revised them, then used the evidence from the Bodleian plate.

Lloyd: I'm trying to visualize this.

Carl: Well, this is just the style of the period. Aesthetics change over time, so. But these rooflets were small hipped-type roofs that ran at right angles, creating several of these and then they lined up over the windows in the back, which lined up over the arcade. So it worked out fairly well.

Lloyd: But it wasn't something that was shocking. It's just a detail they got right.

Carl: It's a detail that they would have missed, had they not found that.

Lloyd: So this gave you the ability to say, "This is as close as we can make it."

Carl: In part, although there are a few things about the plate you have to be careful of. It's not a, it's an artist's engraving, and it's not exactly measured drawings. So it's an artistic interpretation. Many of those elements are very good, but there are some elements that we now know that the artist put in the plate that are incorrect. Such as on one wall, the south wall of the college building, he drew in four windows, sets of windows across that façade. In fact, we know that there were only three. So you have to take it with some care, but my gosh, it's better than having nothing. These are great.

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