Tracing boards are painted or printed illustrations show the various emblems and symbols of Freemasonry. They can be used as teaching aids during the lectures that follow each of the three Masonic Degrees, when an experienced member explains the various concepts of Freemasonry to new members.
The Masonic tracing board took several decades to develop into its current pictorial form. It may be generally described as a framework of board or canvas, on which the emblems of any particular Degree are inscribed, for the assistance of the Master in giving a lecture.
It is so called because formerly it was the custom to inscribe these designs on the floor of the Lodge-room in chalk, which was wiped out when the Lodge was closed.
It is the same as the Carpet, or Tracing-Board. The washing out of the designs chalked upon the floor is seen in the early caricatures of the Craft where a mop and pail are illustrated.
These would soon be put aside when Lodges met in carpeted rooms. Then marking out the Lodge with tape and nails or shaping the symbols in wood or metal to be laid upon the floor or table or pedestal as the case might be in the Lodge showed the symbols.
Such use of separate symbols we have seen in English Lodges, as at Bristol, where the ancient ceremonies are jealously and successfully preserved.
An easy development would be to picture the designs on a cloth to be spread out on the floor when in use or folded up for storage.
Then there would be the further movement to the stereopticon slides of a similar character, and which find frequent use in the United States.
The last years of the 18th century saw lodges no longer satisfied with the crude and makeshift drawings made previously. Many of them adopted some form of ready-made representation painted on a board or cloth.
The very need, which gave rise to the Tracing Board, and from the way they were developed, early designs were naturally diverse and individual. It is not possible to say when sets of three came into use.
The oldest known set of tracing boards in Great Britain belongs to Lodge Faithful, which was founded at Norwich in 1753 and now meets at Harleston in Norfolk. These boards are dated 1800 and depict the modern form of rough and perfect ashlars on the First Degree board. The modern ashlars are also depicted on a set of tracing boards painted by William Dight in 1808 for the Lodge of Unanimity and Sincerity, which meets at Taunton.
A set of tracing boards painted for the Chichester Lodge in 1811 by Josiah Bowring, a portrait painter of London, also depicts the modern ashlars. These boards appear to be the prototypes of the famous set painted by John Harris in 1821, from which most modern tracing boards are derived. The rough ashlar on tracing boards is usually placed at the foot of the Corinthian column representing the Junior Warden, who traditionally is in charge of the apprentices. The perfect ashlar is usually placed at the foot of the Doric column representing the Senior Warden, who traditionally is in charge of the craftsmen.
The largest set of tracing boards in the Museum of Freemasonry in Sydney, Australia date from 1845 and are of the Zetland Style measuring approximately 1 m x 1.5 m oil painted on canvas. These boards were originally is a sad state or repair. On examination there was found to be 7 layers above the paint, 5 layers of lacquer and 2 layers of dirt. The Boards were restored to their original condition and now glow with new life as there were originally painted. The oldest set of Tracing Boards in the Museum Collection date from 1837 and were painted in 1837. These boards were painted for the Australian Social Lodge No. 260 of the Irish Constitution by a local colonial artist and are painted in the style and deign of Josiah Bowring (1757-1832).
Largest Tracing Boards in
the Museum Collection (1845)
It was at the turn of the 18th Century that the first tracing board designs as we enjoy them today came into fashion. In 1801 John Cole published the designs for a set of tracing boards in his Illustrations of Masonry. These designs we would classify as charts rather than artistic designs. They are distinctive in having a different border decoration for each of the degrees and a chequered floor that is diagonal. The three columns are in the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian styles of architecture with Wisdom, Strength and Beauty attributed to them in that order. This order was somehow later changed to Ionic, Doric and Corinthian and is still in common use today in this erroneous order of priority, probably attributable to the manufacturers of our Masonic furniture.
Various artists after later copied John Cole’s designs for his tracing boards. Some used their imagination quite freely and produced a diverse range of sets of new tracing board designs. One of these by Josiah Bowring is quite intriguing, showing the coffin lid set aside to reveal a rather realistic image of Hiram Abiff himself!
The basic features in all these wide range of tracing boards, however, remained essentially consistent. With the establishment of the United Grand Lodge of England in December 1813, when all ritual working was standardised, Tracing Boards also began to gain a certain amount of regularity, although there are no records of any specific attempt at such standardisation.
In 1815, shortly after the union, the miniature painter and architectural draughtsman, John Harris, appeared on the scene with a new and rather revolutionary concept in his depiction of tracing boards. Many lodges throughout England are familiar with the Harris name because they are the proud possessors of a set of his tracing boards. John Harris is to tracing boards what James Anderson is to the Constitutions. He became fascinated by the concept of the designs on tracing boards from the day of his initiation into Freemasonry in 1818.
The next set of boards, elaborate and highly symbolic in design, was dedicated to the Duke of Sussex in 1823, the first Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. This act naturally popularised John Harris’ designs and his tracing boards now became fashionable among Lodges.
The collection of the Museum of Freemasonry contains many sets of hand painted tracing boards dating from the 18th century. The collection covers the span of all the many styles, which were produced during this period and are available for inspection.
They were undoubtedly the work of local painters or artistically gifted brethren, varying so much in style and content. Brother John Harris in 1820 designed and made a set of Tracing Boards for the Three Degrees. The Grand Lodge of England never authorized these designs, nor have they done so since, though the influence of Brother Harris tended to the uniformity that practically now prevails among Tracing-Board makers.
Few cloths and fewer boards dating from before 1800 have survived. The effect of the various designers in the decades following 1800 served to polarize particular designs. These were widely copied and started a trend, which led to the somewhat commercial standardization of today.
In modern times there have been a number of attempts by artists to create new tracing boards. Most notable amongst these have been Lady Freda Harris, a co-mason, who designed three tracing boards based on the old boards. These evocative interpretations of the First, Second and Third Degree Tracing Boards were originally painted by Lady Frieda Harris. The designs incorporate the symbolism of the traditional Tracing Boards, but are distinctive for their modernity, and use of dynamic symmetry in rendering the designs. Her artistic training and experience and date from the early part of the 20th century undoubtedly influenced her designs.
Lady Freda Harris Boards
The Stewart Tracing Boards.
In 2006, 2007 and 2008 Gregory Stewart following on many modern symbolic and esoteric interpretations produced a modern interpretation of the Tracing Boards.