[PINE, John]

Magna Carta


London: Sold by J.Pine. 1733.

Facsimile of the 1215 Magna Carta, engraved by John Pine and printed on vellum. The central panel contains the text of the Magna Carta. To the right and left of the text, on the long edges, are the twenty-five hand-coloured coats of arms of the Barons "that were to decide any dispute between the King and his Subjects as they are preserved in the College of Arms". At the bottom of the document is the hand-coloured representation of the surviving part of King John's Great Seal. On either side of the seal are notes about the two originals of the Magna Carta in the Cottonian Library and the creation of this facsimile. The coats of arms and the panels of text are framed by hand-coloured borders decorated with oak leaves and acorns. In very good condition but with a little damp staining to the lower margin, some slight creasing and two very small holes (one in the border of one of the coats of arms and one in the blank lower margin).
The creation of a facsimile of Magna Carta was a wonderful and perhaps slightly eccentric undertaking but it was born out of a near disaster. On 23rd October 1731, a fire broke out at Ashburnham House, the home of the great Cottonian Library which had only recently been donated to the nation and would form the foundation of the British Library. Among the many manuscripts lost or damaged was the only surviving copy of the 1215 Magna Carta with King John's seal still attached (there were, and are, three other copies without the seal). It was felt that measures should be taken to preserve the text of Magna Carta and so the engraver John Pine was engaged to prepare a copperplate facsimile. Pine was a well-known engraver in London, a friend, and fellow freemason, of Hogarth and with some political connections which no doubt helped him to secure this commission. The result is this beautiful document. At its heart is the text, of course, but Pine had the brilliant idea of enhancing its visual appeal by including the arms of the barons who sought to limit the King's powers. This also lends the work an added political and historical potency. There is a tendency to view Magna Carta as a document embodying abstract philosophico-legal doctrines – the "sacred text" as F.W.Maitland called it. But by bringing us face-to-face with the names and symbols of the men who forced the King's hand, Pine makes us realise that politics is, in the end, not about ideas but about the practical, the possible and the personal.
Pine's Magna Carta had, thanks to his son Robert Edge Pine, an interesting American afterlife. To mark the American victory in the War of Independence from Britain, Robert produced a version of his father's engraving printed on paper. Shortly afterwards, he left for the newly independent America where he became something of a painter in residence to its leaders, producing a portrait of George Washington and, most famously, Congress Voting Independence which incorporated portraits of most of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Magna Carta had been a key text in the founding of America and then in its fight for freedom from Britain. The facsimiles printed by the Pines must surely have helped the revolutionaries keep the principle of liberty in the forefront of their minds.
In a speech marking the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta the lawyer and historian Jonathan Sumption said: "It is impossible to say anything new about Magna Carta, unless you say something mad". That may have been so in 2015. But, as Pine shows in this superb engraving, in 1733 it was not.

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