[Report:] Visible Identities: Symbolic Codes from Personal Heraldry to Corporate Logos, London, 6 November 2017

A PDF programme of the day conference is available online.

It is a convenient coincidence that an event of this thematic scope took place in London, a city that is home to the College of Arms as the oldest authority of heraldry as a century-old tradition of visual identification on the one, and the headquarters of countless companies concerned with identity of modern global brands on the other side. With these two dimensions in mind, this symposium brought together experts on the relation of identity, heraldry, and similar sign systems in past and present as well as professionals dealing with the official and commercial application of heraldic signs, logos, logotypes and trade marks. Supported by The Heraldry Society and hosted by the Society of Antiquaries, the conference also offered attendees a rare insight into the unique collection of heraldic manuscripts in the magnificent library of the society, kindly conducted by Heather Rowland (Head of Library and Collections at the Society of Antiquaries). Videos of all talks are available in full-length via the YouTube channel of the Society of Antiquaries.

Torsten Hiltmann (University of Münster) and Richard Cust (University of Birmingham) offered historical perspectives on the use of signs of identification from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries. Hiltmann argued that although people tend to describe the present as an ‘age of the visual’, the twelfth century marked a striking change in terms of attitudes towards visual communication when it came to matters of identity. Heraldry emerged as an abstract sign system meant to distinguish individuals in the context of seals and soon became virtually ubiquitous and socially widespread, borne not only by the nobility but by townspeople, women, and Jews, too. But while coats of arms might be the most long-lasting and well-known result of this medieval development, Hiltmann stressed that other visual forms of identity communication developed at the same time, notably the marks of merchants, masons, pewterers, and notaries. In contrast to Hiltmann’s paper, which underlined the use of heraldry throughout all of medieval society, Cust’s talk showed that it was the status anxiety of the English gentry that eventually appropriated coats of arms as outward signs of gentle privilege in the early modern era. He demonstrated that the enthusiasm for pedigrees—whether on vellum, walls, or monuments—commemorating  ‘particular glories of their lineages’ stands witness to the fact that blood and arms became the ‘gold-standard of gentility’ in the seventeenth century.

Turning towards heraldic practices in the present, Claire Boudreau (Chief Herald of Canada) and Timothy Noad (Herald Painter, College of Arms) gave insights into the relation of heraldry and identity from the point of view of the modern heraldry professional. Boudreau reflected on the formation of Canadian identity and the difficulties and possibilities of representing the identity of this diverse nation by means of heraldry. Early-modern encounters between European settlers and the First Nations in Canada underlined that communication by means of visual signs—whether coats of arms or clan tokens—was no straightforward process, but one heavily influenced by cultural cultural contexts. Nowadays, however, Canadian heraldry strives to incorporate symbolism and style particular to the Canadian First Nations into the European heraldic tradition. Timothy Noad struck a similar note in his talk on his designs for British coins. As a medium likewise meant to capture British identity in heraldic form, Noad argued that the often emotional reactions to the introduction of coin designs demonstrated just how diverse and contested concepts of British identity captured in visual form remain throughout the public.

Finally, a round-table discussion, chaired by Clive Cheesman (Richmond Herald, College of Arms), brought together Elizabeth Roads (Snawdoun Herald, Lyon Court) and Daniel McCabe (University of Portsmouth) on the topic of ‘Branding or Blazon? The Future of Heraldry in a World of Trade Marks’. MacCabe contributed with reflections from the practice of the graphic design professional and brand expert, stressing that key considerations in logo design included its usability, simplicity, popularity but also history. Similar considerations echoed throughout Roads’ argument in favour of coats of arms as part of corporate logos. Like Noad, she stressed that one of the unique features of heraldry was its ability to be depicted in different artistic styles whilst at the same time remaining fundamentally distinct and instantly recognisable. In the wake of this eventually complementary ‘meeting of the minds’, Cheesman concluded the symposium with the observation that it seemed to be differences of professional culture between heralds and heraldists on the one, and brand experts and graphic designers on the other side that stood in the way of a resurgence of heraldry in the world of trade marks, not a conceptual incommensurateness of the two ‘worlds’ in general.


Marcus Meer

Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar at the Department of History/Centre for Visual Arts and Culture, University of Durham, working on a PhD thesis on heraldry as a means of visual communication in medieval cities in England and Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *