Museum of Freemasonry - Masonic Library

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Part Four

CURRENT TRACING BOARD USAGE

Finally, I am enclosing probably the most famous of the Tracing Boards, done by Harris for the Emulation Lodge of Improvement dated 1845. It is these and other ones that he did that have been copied and adulterated which we now we use as our Tracing Boards. (see figs. 19, 20, 21.)

fig19There’s another artist, Thissleton, who I have not included because the quality of the reproduction wouldn't have been very good and there was nothing particularly interesting about his artwork. There are some other unnamed artists that I also cannot reproduce. I have, as much as possible, avoiding dealing with wall hangings and other Masonic wall charts and Royal Arch Tracing Boards &c., &c. Those are subsidiary topics to what I'm dealing with and this is complicated enough.

I've also left out references to other similar Tracing Boards (the Harris designs) because frankly they haven't been reproduced by either Haunch or Dring. Both of them decided not reproduce them for particular reasons which I believe are worth sharing. First from Dring and then from Haunch as follows:

"I have tried to put before you as concisely as possible the Evolution and Development of the Lodge Board, and I have purposely refrained from entering into the later developments made by Harris and the designers of the Victorian era. They form a distinct chapter which would entail little labour for any brother to write, but I must say the subject does not interest me. Erroneous ideas, mistaken conceptions, meticulous details, in fact, all the bad qualities of the Victorian age permeate them, and, to my idea, the sooner we return to the pure realistic designs of Bowring or some of his contemporaries the better."

fig20"In their basic design, Harris' boards owe much to those of his predecessors, particularly Bowring, although they lack the purity of style and balance of the latter’s work. The later examples exhibit the florid exuberance of ornament beloved of Victorian taste, especially the Second Degree Board, whose architecture is often a strange amalgam of Egyptian, Assyrian, Moorish and other styles."

I do not want to spend too much time on the "iconography" of the Tracing Boards, because the use of two hundred years ago is a separate topic completely, especially because some of the symbols have not been used in English Masonry since the Lodge of Reconciliation although they are still being used in other parts of the world. I cannot however leave this without discussing at least one point of interest in each of the three Tracing Boards. In regard to the First Degree Tracing Board, I refer to Browne Jacob and Harris , because each of them has a Tracing Board for the Master to write lines on and in fact, both Browne and Jacob show the 47th proposition.

In regards to the Second Degree Board, you will notice, if you look carefully, that some of the stairs wind to the right and some of the stairs wind to the left. This has sparked some debate as to which is the more accurate description of the stairs–I haven't even mentioned these references because it is not a topic that I find particularly worthwhile to investigate. There is, however, the issue as to what each Lodge felt was the proper direction for the stairways to go, and if you look at all the Second Degree Tracing Boards, except the first one by Cole, there are no compass points on them; this would allow the Lodge to have the Tracing Boards turned such that the stairs went whichever way the Lodge determined they should be going.

fig21As for the Third Degree Board, what initially strikes one is the coffin. Hiram Abiff would have been buried only in a shroud not a coffin but the visual representation of the coffin has been kept consistent by and large. There was another confusing issue that I must deal with here and that is the lettering on the Third Degree Board itself. On some of the boards there is a little bit of Hebrew lettering but on most of the boards that are used in this jurisdiction, the lettering that is on the coffin or around the coffin is not Hebrew at all but a cypher which typically includes the Masonic year. As for the Masonic year, if you are interested in tracing this, the best article I could find was "The Dating of the Masonic Records," by Alan Bernheim, AQC Vol.99 (1986). As for the cypher, I enclose a copy of part of the Haunch article in which he explains how to read the cypher. (see fig. 22.)

Having said all of that I now enclose a Harris Third Degree Board that does not conform to much of what I just said. First of all it shows an open grave with a body in it, not a coffin, secondly, there is a fair amount of Hebrew on the tombstone (another uncommon feature). In fact, the only cypher on there are the six lines directly below the 47th proposition on the left hand side of the tombstone. The three Hebrew letters that are placed adjacent to North, South and East are identical and each has a numerical value of 5. It is typical to see three 5s on these boards in relationship to the Hiramic Legend. (see fig. 23.)

I believe this covers off the majority of the knowable history of Tracing Boards, and I now deal with the final questions as to why it is that we have Tracing Boards in our Canadian Work and how it is that we use them.

To some extent this can be traced back and through some work done by the Special Committee on Rituals between 1950 and 1954. I quote from the 1950 Grand Lodge Proceedings (page 131):