VERRALL LECTURE (6th March 2000) by JD Anderson.
It is My Thesis:
- That modem Masonic Tracing Boards evolved sequentially from the Floor Drawings, Floor Cloths, Floor Boards/Trestle Boards
of earliest Freemasonry, and
- That the Tracing Boards and their forerunners, by medium of the symbols displayed thereon, together with the Lectures, were
the main medium by which the teachings of Freemasonry were disseminated from the earliest days, and finally
- That, if 'Freemasonry IS a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols' (as we teach our Entered
Apprentices in the Test Questions), then a study of the symbols employed on the Floor Drawings - Floor Cloths -Floor
Boards/Trestle Boards - Tracing Boards, over their history, should reveal any changes in the philosophy of Freemasonry.
To set the scene, let me refer you to our own little blue book- The Ritual of the Three Degrees of Freemasonry, issued by the
Grand Lodge of New Zealand, 1989 edition.
In the charge, "Explanation of the First Tracing Board", commencing on page 75, we read the following:
"The immovable Jewels are the Tracing Board, and the Rough and Perfect Ashlars. The Tracing Board is for the Master to lay
lines and draw designs on; ... They are called immovable Jewels, because they lie open and immovable in the Lodge for the
Brethren to moralise upon. As the Tracing Board is for the Master to lay lines and draw designs on, the better to enable the
Brethren to carry on the work of the intended structure with regularity and propriety, so the V.S.L. may justly be deemed to be
the Spiritual Tracing Board of the Great Architect of the Universe ... "
If you reflect on this passage, Brethren, you will find a strange inconsistency. If the Tracing Board is for the Master to lay lines
and draw designs on," we would surely expect a plain and clear drawing board without anything already painted on it.
On the other hand if it is "for the Brethren to moralise upon", it surely must be more than a plain and clear drawing board!
The explanation is that two separate boards are referred to in the Charge. The first, the real Tracing Board is a plain drawing
board depicted on the first degree Board in front of the pedestal. The second, the Lodge Board, is what is usually known to us
as the Tracing Board, with various symbols and emblems
It is with the second of these boards - the Lodge Board or, as it used to be called, "The Lodge" - that we are presently
The Tracing Boards of the three degrees, although not used in some workings, and indeed unknown in certain jurisdictions, are a
significant survival from our masonic past. In a sense they epitomise a stage in the development of speculative Freemasonry, by
way of accepted masonry, from the operative craft
There is no doubt that among the ancient builders and architects, particularly the Egyptians, a Tracing Board of sorts was in use,
as the remains of many of them have been found alongside the ruins of ancient buildings They were ruled in squares, and the
plan of the building was drawn on the squared board. Each square of the board represented a certain number of bricks or cubes
of stone, and the builder and or architect was thus able to get the proportions of the building right. The architect usually cut the
Tracing Board in the stone somewhere near to his building, many of these exist to the present day. It gradually became the
custom to draw these Tracing Boards on the floor of the builder's workroom where it would be convenient for all the workmen to
Undoubtedly this Tracing Board formed a very important part in the equipment of the ancient builders, particularly when we
consider that the secrets which they so zealously guarded were probably the properties of the right-angled triangle, known as the
47th proposition of Euclid, and certain properties of the circle. It was the knowledge of these geometrical facts that enabled the
ancient builder and architect to draw their plans so accurately.
We are told (Bro R J Meekren in his The Lodge, an Essay in Method, AQC 61) that the primitive operative lodge was held out of
doors. Echoes of this tradition are to be found in early speculative documents, and some still persist in the Lectures. To the
student of folklore, says Meekren, the marking out of a ritual enclosure on the ground is a familiar and explainable practice.
When lodges came to meet indoors, it would be natural for them to continue the customs they were used to out of doors. The
"enclosure had, therefore, to be formed on the floor of the meeting room".
This enclosure, "the lodge", the "oblong square" of the eighteenth century catechisms, in becoming a drawing on the floor,
entered on a stage of development and revivification which was ultimately to give us our pictorial tracing boards of today.
Let us, then, examine in detail the stages by which the symbolical "lodge" was transformed into the tracing board. It must be
understood, however, that these processes of development did not follow any clear-cut, chronological sequence of events. There
would be considerable local variation, and the processes overlapped to a large extent and here and there were even anticipated.
The further back we look the less we can expect to find uniformity.
THE FLOOR DRAWINGS
In the context of this part of my paper, the term "the lodge" is taken to refer to the essential lodge, the ritual enclosure of the
primitive masons lodge which, indoors, became an outline diagram on the floor of the meeting room. It should be noted that the
meeting room was not "the lodge".
References to "drawing the lodge", and the Tyler's duty in connection with this, are a familiar feature of early eighteenth century
minutes. In those days Lodges usually met in some well known Inn or Tavern. The furnishings of such a place would be sparse
and plain. The Tyler drew the Lodge with chalk and charcoal on the bare floor boards of the room, having prepared the floor by
sweeping aside the sand or rushes with which they were customarily covered. After the completion of the "making", and the
symbols and emblems having been carefully explained to the candidate, he was given a mop and a pail of water, and ordered to
wash away the drawing.
Of the nature of the diagram drawn upon the floor -the "form of the lodge" - we are less sure. Some of the old documents help,
hinting at several variations in the "form of the lodge", cruciform, triangular and rectangular.
A good description of this drawing on the floor of the Lodge is in an exposure of the year 1762, known as 'Jachin and Boaz,' or
'An Authentic Key to the Door of Freemasonry, both Ancient and Modern,' and is as follows:-
"He is also learnt the step or how to advance to the Master upon the drawing on the floor, which in some Lodges resembles
the Grand Building, termed a Mosaic Palace, and is described with the utmost exactness. They also draw other figures, one of
which is called the Laced Tuft and the other the Throne beset with stars. There is also represented a perpendicular line in the
form of a Mason's instrument commonly called the Plum-line; and another figure which represents the tomb of Hiram the first
Grand Master, who has been dead almost three thousand years. These are all explained to him in the most accurate manner,
and the ornaments or emblems of the order are described with great facility."
There is no doubt, however, that the main tradition of the form of "the lodge" was of an "oblong square" - the pompous
"parallelepipedon" of the modern-day Lectures.
Following Samuel Prichard's famous exposure, Masonry Dissected, of 1730, contemporary printed exposures of the Craft
system began to appear in increasing numbers both in England and on the Continent. First in England in 1760 was Three
Distinct Knocks, followed two years later by Jachin and Boaz, the former claiming to reveal the "Antients` working, and the latter,
Freemasonry "Both Ancient and Modern". Both pamphlets contain an illustration purporting to be the "Plan of the Drawing on the
Floor at the making of a Mason".
Drawing the lodge with chalk or charcoal on the floor of the room was no doubt satisfactory, at first, for meetings in ordinary inns
and taverns. For the more sophisticated lodges. and those meeting in the salons of the gentry (as, for instance, in France
particularly), this would not do. Contemporary accounts show that some masons had taken to delineating the outline of the
"lodge" with tapes tacked in position on the floor. This would be less trouble and less likely to leave traces whereby the "form of
the lodge might be discovered."
(In the privately printed ritual of Lodge St Augustine No 99, of Waimate, in South Canterbury, there is a beautiful charge entitled
"Chalk, Charcoal and Clay" recited as part of their Third Degree.
Metal emblems appear also to have been used for ornamenting the "lodge" in order, perhaps, not to place too great a strain on
the artistic skill of the tyler, whose duty it was to "draw the lodge". The catechism, A Dialogue between Simon and Philip (c.
1725), described certain letters and emblems "made of thin Silver or Tin" placed in position upon the lodge".
Some Lodges did not give up the practice of "drawing the Lodge on the floor until well into the 19th century. In the minutes of the
Old Dundee Lodge, No. 18, the last record of a payment to the Tyler for 'Drawing the Lodge", or 'Framing the Lodge", as it was
sometimes called, was on the 13th February, 1812.
The conclusion seems to be that floor cloths did not come into general use until about the year 1790. Some Lodges used them
very much earlier. Further, that Lodge Boards, or as we now call them Tracing Boards, began to be generally used about ten
years later and gradually replaced both the floor cloths and the drawing on the floor.
PAINTED FLOOR CLOTHS
It was inevitable, as a matter of convenience, and because of the increasing elaboration of the floor diagram, that some sort of
ready-made or permanent representation of the "form of the lodge" should eventually come to be used. So we find a Minute of the
Old King's Arms Lodge, No. 28, recording:
"3rd December 1733.
The acting Master represented that whereas the institution of new Brethren was attended with more than ordinary and perhaps
an unnecessary Trouble it was therefore moved that a proper Delineation should be made on Canvas and be deposited in the
Repository ready for those occasions. "
Such painted cloths are found mentioned increasingly in lodge minutes, etc., in the latter half of the eighteenth century.
The Lodge of Union, No. 129, Kendal, possesses a set of floor cloths, which may date from as early as 1772 These show the
first simple developments in the embellishing of the "lodge". The three ritual steps are built up cumulatively from one to three on
the cloths of the respective degrees, as also are certain working tools and other emblems. The most significant feature, however,
is on the First Degree cloth, the ornamental border of which still retains the old form of the "lodge", the oblong square with a
triangular extension at the Eastern end.
The introduction of lodge cloths or "floorings" (as they were often called) must have met with considerable opposition from
conservative quarters. We gain a hint of this from the French exposure of 1745, L'Ordre des Francs Macons Trahi, which was
widely circulated, and which appeared in England, in translation, under various titles. In this work it is said. -
"The Lodge proper, i.e., the figures drawn on the floor on Reception days, must be quite literally crayoned, and must not be
painted on a cloth which is kept specially for those days, as they do in some Lodges" and the author comments "that is
contrary to Regulations". Nevertheless, he illustrates a series of plates depicting the "Veritable Plan de la Loge", whose intricacy
would make them very difficult to reproduce as he directs. Furthermore, it appears that the "Regulations" were not strictly
observed. A set of seven engravings published in 1745 with the title, Assemblage de Francs Macons, shows a French lodge at
work with the brethren ranged on either side of floor cloths similar in design to those of the Trahi exposure.
From Scotland, too, comes evidence that lodge cloths were prohibited there. The Scottish Grand Lodge recorded in 1759:-
"It having been represented to Grand Lodge, that a Painted Cloth containing the Flooring of a Master's Lodge was hanging
publicly exposed in a painter's shop, and they, considering that the same might be of pernicious consequences to Masonry,
ordered the same to be sent for., and, in regard that the use of such painted Floorings was expressly forbid, instruct the Lodge
St. Andrew's, (to whom it belonged), not in the future to use any such Floors."
Despite these strictures, the use of Floor Cloths grew. They were probably comparatively expensive items of lodge equipment,
especially as they became more elaborate, and the desire would arise to preserve them from defacement on the floor.
(Members would obviously NOT walk on them, hence the origin of "squaring the lodge". Author)
It would therefore seem a natural thing, to drape the cloth over a table, to support it on a board on trestles, or to hang it on the
wall on rollers.
From this stage it was but a short step to mounting the lodge cloth in a frame to protect it further. So we find the Old Kilwinning
St. John Lodge, No. 6 (S.C.), on February 4th, 1793, recording: -
"The Master proposed having the flooring of the Fellow Crafts and Master Masons painted and framed. . . "
The Floor Cloth now mounted and framed, we approach the modern Tracing Board.
At this point we must briefly consider a parallel line of development. Whilst some lodges were resorting to "Cloths or Floorings"
for forming the "lodge", others, like the Lodge of Emulation, No. 2, found another way round the difficulty: -
'1763. March 11th.
A Motion was made that a proper Board be made for the Tyler to draw his Lodge on."
In this particular case, the "form of the lodge", was still being drawn by the Tyler.
To be contained on a board of manageable proportions it must have been much smaller than the diagrams in Three Distinct
Knocks and Jachin and Boaz, which showed the brethren assembled round the perimeter of the plan.
The practice of laying the board on the floor would doubtless soon give way to the more convenient arrangement (as with the
Cloths) of laying the board on a table, or of simply supporting the board itself on trestles.
It must be remembered that the ceremonial and convivial activities of the lodge meetings had not yet separated out into
"Ceremony" and "Refectory", as is the case today. A very important part of meetings was still the working of catechetical
lectures, interspersed with charges and toasts, with the brethren seated around a centrally placed table . (An arrangement
described, in fact, in Jachin and Boaz.
A table was therefore ready to hand for the lodge board, working tools and other paraphernalia. Such a table is illustrated in the
frontispiece to the 1784 Book of Constitutions.
WHO DESIGNED THE TRACING BOARDS?
In the last years of the eighteenth century, it seems that lodges were no longer satisfied with the crude and makeshift ad hoc
drawing by the Tyler. Many of them adopted some form of ready-made representation painted on a cloth or on a board. It is not
possible to say when sets of three came into use. Some surviving lodge cloths show symbols and emblems connected with all
three degrees (and in some cases with the Royal Arch, too) combined on one, or sometimes two, sides of a cloth.
When the original function of the "form of the lodge" was lost sight of, the Floor Cloth became merely a symbolical painting, and
a single tracing cloth or board appropriate to each degree would be a natural development.
Early designs were naturally diverse and individual. They would at first, be the work of local painters or artistically gifted brethren,
varying much in style and content.
Those cloths and boards that have survived, reveal a simplicity and directness of approach, and are more in the nature of
masonic charts, with conventional arrangements of emblems and symbols, than pictorial compositions. The writings of the
masonic philosophers and ritualists in the last quarter of the eighteenth century were leading a movement towards uniformity in
the diverse systems of working. Similarly with the tracing board, the work of certain noted designers in the decades following,
had the effect of popularising particular designs. These were widely copied and adapted, and so was started a trend that has led
to the somewhat commercial standardisation of today.
The artists who have had the greatest influence in the design of modern Tracing Boards were Bro John Cole.. Bro (?) Jacobs; Bro
Josiah Bowring and Bro John Harris.
One of the earliest published designs for a set of tracing boards appeared as engravings in John Cole's Illustrations of Masonry,
published in 1801.
These are of the masonic chart pattern, although the beginnings of a more pictorial treatment are seen in the Second Degree
Board. The Third Degree Board shows the simple coffin shape as a frame for certain emblems, and this arrangement was to
remain essentially the basic type for this Degree, apart from a few isolated excursions into somewhat macabre realism. The
boards of the other two Degrees show a closer approach to natural pictorialism.
Cole's engravings are marked by certain other distinguishing characteristics, viz: -
1.The border of the First Degree Board has a simple geometrical fret ornament, and the mosaic pavement is chequered in a
diagonal, as distinct from square, pattern.
2.The Second Board uses in the border, a naturalistic design of blades and ears of wheat linked by a wavy stem. It has, too, a
simple representation of a bridge, waterfall and growing corn.
3.A further flowing leaf design, possibly to represent acacia, appears on the border of the Third Degree Board, enclosing a
conventional arrangement of emblems of mortality.
These features appear, with modifications or embellishments, in several examples of boards modelled on Cole's engravings
JACOBS (Christian name and particulars unknown)
Examples are scarce of boards designed by Bro. Jacobs,of Charles Street, Hatton Gardens, who published designs for boards
approximately 10 inches by 8 inches. One set of his boards shows certain unusual features:-
1 .The First Degree Board, still of the chart pattern, incorporates miniature paintings of three Old Testament scenes, the
sacrifices of Abraham, Moses and Elijah.
2.On the Second Degree Board, a painting of a landscape with bridge, waterfall, etc., is introduced below a formal architectural
composition of the Two Great Pillars and Middle Chamber, on the domed roof of which are the figures of the first Three Grand
3.The Third Degree Board shows a coffin, partially opened to reveal a shrouded figure inside, and on the nameplate there
appears, for the first time, the date 3000.
One of the most notable designers of the first decades of the nineteenth century, was undoubtedly Josiah Bowring. He was by
profession a portrait painter, was initiated into Freemasonry in 1795, and died c. 183 1. Boards painted by him are of greater
artistic merit than most which preceded or followed him, for his designs have the classical simplicity, refinement and repose of
the Georgian Age.
A beautiful example of his work is the First Degree Tracing Board. The Christian Virtues, which until then had been represented
by the letters "F", "H" and "C", are now symbolised by female figures on the Jacob's Ladder.
On the square pavement leading to the foot of the Ladder lie the Three Great Lights, together with the Two Grand Parallel Lines
bounding the Circle and the Point within. Suspended by a cord from one of the rungs of the Ladder (and this especially is a
characteristic feature of the Bowring First Degree Board) is the Key which should always hang in a brother's defence, and never
lie to his prejudice, symbolising the Tongue of Good Report.
JOHN HARRIS (1791 (?) - 1873)
The work of the designers mentioned so far, found either limited or local expression only. They were soon overshadowed by John
Harris, whose name was to become inseparably linked with the design of tracing boards. John Harris, painter of miniatures,
architectural draughtsman and expert facsimilist, was initiated into Freemasonry in 1818. He seems to have become interested
at once in the design of tracing boards, and, like Jacobs, engraved and published designs for small portable boards.
A set of engravings published by Harris in 1823 was, dedicated to the Grand Master, the Duke of Sussex. Although this
dedication was apparently without permission, it may have helped to popularise his designs for they, and copyists versions of
those designs, seem quickly to have spread and to have been adopted by the Craft at large. In 1845 a committee appointed by
the Emulation Lodge of Improvement approved designs submitted by Harris. After this he continued to work on his tracing board
designs, and in 1849 published a further set which found general acceptance, and which seems to have become the pattern on
which later commercial designs were based.
Harris introduced several new features in his boards and modified or discarded old designs. These, and some of the problems
arising from his presentation of them, may be summarised as follows: -
In his early First Degree Board, Harris followed the chart pattern of Jacobs. He evidently abandoned this type later in favour of the
perspective composition which was to become characteristic of his later First Degree Boards
1. These copied the Bowring three-dimensional arrangement of the pillars Wisdom, Strength and Beauty, with the appropriate
Movable Jewels against their plinths, but the columns are now surmounted by heavy entablatures. An Altar slightly off-centre,
is introduced and supports the Three Great Lights, and bears on the front the Circle, Point within and the Two Grand Parallel
Lines. Jacob's Ladder, now drawn as a staircase or nearly so, ascends from the Altar through a background of clouds to a
Glory in the centre. The three Virtues on the Ladder have become symbols: a Chalice, an Anchor, and a Woman and Child.
Bowring's hanging Key has disappeared, although it is reintroduced in some later Harris-type designs. In these the symbols of
the Virtues are changed round to become, in order of ascent, the Cross of Faith, the Anchor of Hope and the Liberal Hand
extending the Cup of Charity, with the Key laid rather arbitrarily between the Cross and the Anchor. The indented border, first
seen in embryo in some of his predecessors' designs, reaches its fullest development on Harris's First Degree Board.
2 Harris's tracing board of the Second Degree in early examples shows a single Temple scene. This unifies all the familiar
elements that, in Cole's engraving, had been diverse and detached. An interesting feature is on the wall surrounding the
doorway to the Middle Chamber, which Harris has decorated with a reproduction of his First Degree Board. In his midcentury
design for the Emulation Lodge of Improvement, Harris seems to have had second thoughts about depicting the Temple in a
single scene. Seeking, evidently, to reconcile Biblical accounts and Masonic legend, he splits his picture into two separate
scenes: the lower showing the principal entrance to the Temple with the Two Great Pillars, etc.; the upper showing that other
porchway or entrance situated, according to Masonic tradition, on the South side.
3 Third Degree Boards designed by Harris show few developments, apart from the one important innovation described below.
They are of the simple closed coffin pattern, directly descended from Cole via Bowring. Minor changes affect the emblems,
etc., shown on the coffin, but the major innovation concerns the nameplate and other inscriptions appearing on the lid. The
earliest examples of Harris Third Degree Boards, have a simple nameplate with the monogram H.A.B, and the date, all in
English characters, and the cypher symbol for M.B. twice repeated lower down the board. Quite soon afterwards, Harris
changed his design and introduced a nameplate and inscription in masonic cypher that became the distinctive feature of his
Third Degree Board.
Of particular interest to NZ readers, will be the Tracing Boards illustrated on page 36 (of his booklet). These are drawings
prepared by Bro H H Tombs, of Wellington, New Zealand, for the Research Lodge of Wellington No 194 in 1948/49.
These were the basis of Tracing Boards being prepared for that Lodge as a gift to NZ Pacific Lodge No 2. Bro Tombs writes in
Leaflet No 211, that his designs were based on originals prepared by Bro Fletcher PM who was the head of the Leicester School
of Art in England.
END of THE JOURNEY
The story of the origins of the modern Tracing Board is now complete.
Harris's designs have established basic stereotypes and have attained widespread popularity. Individual artistry in this field has
definitely waned ` it being no longer an economic proposition for lodges to commission specially painted boards, and the
standard products of firms of masonic furnishers have found favour as cheaper and ready-to-hand alternatives.
Purpose-made boards have continued to be produced (as witness those of Bro H H Tombs) and, indeed, original designs still
make their appearance today, but these are isolated examples.
Symbolism is peculiarly personal, having a different impact from one person to another, perhaps according to our value systems,
our religious beliefs, or our 'life experiences'.
This being so, I simply want to draw your attention to those symbols, listed below, which have been identified from the Floor
Drawings, Floor Cloths/Floor Boards and Tracing Boards illustrated in this Paper, that are not usually seen on the Boards of New
Zealand Lodges. (Given the Harris Boards are the most common Boards in NZ)
Missing Symbols Identified:
Beehive Aaron's Rod
Hanging Key Pot of Manna
Grand Masters Pot of Incense
Hour Glass Trowel
Noah's Ark Tablets of Sacred Laws
Diagonal Pavement Three men in a cave
NOW MY QUESTION TO YOU, THE FREEMASON, IS:
In omitting the identified symbols from the currently used Tracing Boards-
Have we lost something from the original "peculiar system of morality, illustrated by symbols" ?
The author desires to acknowledge the following publications and authors as major sources for the lecture:
Ars Quatuor Coronatorum; Transactions
Research Lodge of Otago No 161; Transactions
United Masters Lodge No 167; Transactions
Research Lodge of Wellington No 194; The Tracing Boards and Other Selected Papers
The following books:
Masonic Halls of England - The South by Neville Barker Cryer
The Early French Exposures, Edited by Harry Carr
Three Distinct Knocks and Jachin and Boaz, Masonic Book Club
World of Freemasonry by Harry Carr
Emulation, A Ritual to Remember by Colin Dyer
Freemason's Guide and Compendium by Bernard Jones
The Freemason at Work by Harry Carr
Masonic Emblems & Jewels by William Hammond
Symbolism in Craft Freemasonry by Colin Dyer
The Craft and Its Symbols by Allen E Roberts
Signs and Symbols by G Oliver
Freemasonry-lts Svmbolism, Law of Nature & Law of Perfection by Paton
British Masonic Miscellany Geo M Martin, Volumes 2 & 10
- The Ritual of The Three Degrees Of Craft Freemasonry - privately printed for use in Lodge St Augustine. No 99, (originally,
No 576 SC), Waimate South Canterbury.
- The Ritual of the Three Degrees of Freemasonry Grand Lodge of NZ 1989
EDITOR'S NOTE: Bro Anderson produced a forty page booklet covering all the material in his paper printed above. The booklet
also contains many fine illustrations and photographs of the boards referred to in the paper. Bro Anderson laboured diligently in
producing the booklet but it was impracticable for this editor's level of competence to have reproduced them all. The Editor
apologises to Bro Anderson for this.
SOURCE: Waikato Lodge of Research Volume 9 No 6 March 2000