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Allen, J. Romilly

    Full Name: Allen, J. Romilly

    Other Names:

    • John Romilly Allen

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1847

    Date Died: 1907

    Place Born: Regent's Park, London, England, UK

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): archaeology, iconography, and Medieval (European)


    Archaeologist and historian of early British medieval iconography. Allen was the son of a landed Welshman, George Baugh Allen (1821-1898), a barrister (known as a “pleader”) of the legal association (“Inner Temple”) in Narberth, Pembrokeshire, Wales, and his mother, Dorothea Hannah Eaton (Allen) (d. 1868). Allen graduated from King’s College School, London, in 1860 and Rugby School in 1863 before attending King’s College, London between 1864 and 1866. He made his living as a civil engineer, first as an engineer-in-chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, London, and then, in 1870, as a resident civil engineer to the railways construction project for Baron Julius de Reuter (1816-1899). He supervised the docks building at Leith, near Edinburgh, Scotland, and at Boston, Lincolnshire, in England. Allen used his leisure time to study archaeology, especially pre-Norman art and artifacts. While employed in Leith, he visited various Scottish archaeological sites. In 1873 he published an initial article in the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, Archaeologia Cambrensis. Allen became a member of the association in 1875 and elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland in 1883. In 1885 presented the lecture, “Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the Thirteenth Century,” as the SAS’s Rhind lecturer in archaeology, which he published in 1887. In 1889 he published his first book on monuments, the small Monumental History of the Early British Church. The same year he was appointed co-editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis, rising to editor by 1892. Allen quit his job as an engineer–his family’s wealth was enough for support–to devote all his energies to archaeology. Several additional Rhind lectures followed. He was appointed editor of the Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist in 1893, succeeding J. Charles Cox (1843-1919). In England he became a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1896, collaborating on a book with Arthur G. Langdon on Cornish cross sculpture the same year. He was Yates lecturer in archaeology in University College, London, for 1898. The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland funded his excavations in Scotland. In 1899 he published the article “Early Christian Art in Wales” in the journal, the first systematic account of nascent Christian Welsh material culture. Allen and another Rhind lecturer, Joseph Anderson (1832-1916), published The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, in 1903, an analysis and classification of ornament of early medieval sculpture which became a model for medieval art methodology in England. He followed this with Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times in 1904. He died at his home in London in 1907. His notes are held in the British Library. Allen’s knowledge of various media, metalwork and manuscript illumination, enabled him to make a comparative study of art in disparate media, allowing him to establish the first serious chronology of early indigenous art in Britain. His iconographical typology formed the basis of later art indexes and modern visual collections. As an engineer, Allen employed scientific methods of description as the basis of an esthetic appreciation of his objects. He was an early exponent of historic preservation, advocating casting, photographing, drawing and other forms of documenting monuments which were weathering away. His writing was often critical of museum curators, who, he thought, ignored early Christianity in Britain and were aloof from the public.

    Selected Bibliography

    Celtic Art in Pagan and Christian Times. London: Methuen & Co.,1904; Early Christian Symbolism in Great Britain and Ireland before the Thirteenth Century: the Rhind Lectures in Archaeology for 1885. London: Whiting & Co., 1887; The Monumental History of the Early British Church. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1889; and Langdon, Arthur G. Old Cornish Crosses. Truro: J. Pollard, 1896; and Anderson, Joseph. The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland: a Classified, Illustrated, Descriptive List of the Monuments, with an Analysis of their Symbolism and Ornamentation. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Society of antiquaries of Scotland/Neill & Co., 1903.


    Henderson, Isabel. “The Making of The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland.” in Allen, John Romilly and Anderson, Joseph, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland. vol.1 Balgavies, Forfar: Pinkfoot, 1993, pp. 13-40; [obituary:] The Times (London) July 13, 1907.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Allen, J. Romilly." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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