At the November meeting of St Luke’s Chapter, in Bath, E Comp Bob Moore visited us and gave us a talk explaining the signification of the Royal Arch Tracing Board. This was only the second occasion that Bob had given this fascinating talk. Most members would be forgiven for not knowing that there ever were tracing boards in chapters because they have fallen into disuse and the only board surviving in Somerset is in Taunton so it is something that Chapter members are not familiar with.
It was interesting to hear the history of tracing boards – that they were common before the union of the Grand Lodges and that the tradition dates back to when plans were “traced out” on the floor in operative masons lodges.
As the practice was adopted in the lodges of the speculative masons, rather than be traced out on the floor, trestle boards were used onto which were drawn masonic images of tools and furnishings. As masonry developed, so these things came to be physically represented.
When UGLE was formed the Duke of Sussex, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England and the Past Grand Master of the Moderns, commissioned the artist John Harris to harmonise the tracing boards by creating an official model for each degree including the Holy Royal Arch, a degree within the Moderns that had been controlled by the Craft up until 1817.
John Harris (1791-1873) came from an artistic family and was a painter of miniatures and an architectural draughtsman. He was initiated in 1818 and from the beginning was fascinated by the symbolic portrayals on tracing boards. He soon revolutionised the concept of the designs, which ultimately led to the standardisation of tracing boards throughout the constitution.
In 1823 Harris dedicated a set of his miniature tracing boards to the Duke of Sussex, the Grand Master. This act naturally popularised his designs and the tracing boards soon became fashionable and in demand by the majority of Lodges. A true breakthrough came when an invitation by the Emulation Lodge of Improvement was made for artists to submit designs for tracing boards. John Harris’ designs won hands down and he never looked back. He produced a series of designs including Royal Arch, which are used in Masonic Ritual to help explain the symbolism and moral system of freemasonry. Harris’s designs form the basis of many still used today.
By 1856 Harris became totally blind and in 1860 moved to the Masonic Benevolent Institution where he stayed until his death in 1873. As different Masonic jurisdictions established standardised written degree rituals the creation of new tracing board designs began to decrease, those used today are a representations of various designs produced by Bro John Harris between 1820 & 1850. Bob’s talk is most interesting so do catch it if you get the chance.