An exhibition of old books has gone on display in Covent Garden that seeks to explain the often cryptic messages hidden within their illustrations.

Most illustrations of the time contained messages that people would recognise as providing a second layer of meaning to the educated reader — and Freemasons were no different in how their books were produced.

In times past, books were usually sold without decorative covers, for the illustrations were inside, and if there were illustrations inside, the book was more valuable.

At a time of rivalry between the two Grand Lodges, publications of their rulebooks, known as Constitutions were high-profile, and contained very detailed illustrations opposite their title pages.

As a result there were six frontispieces created for the Grand Lodges’ Constitutions.

The exhibition, Decoded: Freemasonry’s Illustrated Rulebooks shows how freemasons used the frontispiece to communicate messages. It shows how they were a propaganda tool in the rivalry between the Grand Lodges.

Each of the books on display is accompanied by a series of enlargements that highlight some of the messages within the books.

From images of Freemasonry being represented in female form, or in one case, a flying angel, the decorations are rich in detail — although they note in one case, a scientific instrument is “badly drawn”.

In an early case of schoolboy excuses, one of the books lacked either the frontispiece and the history, as the author claimed that they had been eaten by a neighbour’s dog.

One of the rare books on display is the Constitution prepared after the two Grand Lodges merged — and is rare because the illustration wasn’t finished by the time the book was published.

It wasn’t until the third edition that the artist, Richard Silvester delivered his commission, and still demanding payment of £73 for his late work.

As an exhibition, it’s fairly small, but a visit to Freemasons’ Hall is always a delight, and there is still an exhibition of Freemasonry medals on at the same time.

The exhibition, Decoded: Freemasonry’s Illustrated Rulebooks is open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm until 29th June 2019. Entry is free.

Also, when the Grand Temple is not in use there are up to 5 tours per day of the building, at 11am, 12noon, 2pm, 3pm and 4pm. There is no charge.

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