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Following the foundation of the Society of Antiquaries in 1707, artists – both professional and amateur – were greatly encouraged to record the surviving remains of historic buildings. Canterbury was an obvious focus for such activity, as a result of its significance in the development of Christianity in Britain. St Augustine’s Abbey was founded in 598 AD by Augustine himself, the Benedictine monk who had been sent from Rome by Pope Gregory I to convert King Aethelberht and the people of his Kingdom of Kent. Following the dissolution of the monastery in 1538, the buildings were partly demolished and partly converted into a royal residence, which was itself dismantled from 1658, when it came into the possession of the Hales family. An earthquake in 1692 and a storm in 1702 did further damage. Artists who preceded Edward Dayes in making the remains of St Augustine’s their subject include Jonathan Skelton (1757), S H Grimm (1768) and Francis Grose (1775).
A number of dated works suggest that Dayes was working in Canterbury during the mid 1780s. Most notably, his view of St Augustine’s Gate was one of his first two exhibits at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1785, and, in the following year, it was engraved for publication in the series of volumes, The Beauties of England and Wales. The present watercolour shows the eleventh-century St Ethelbert’s Tower, the then remaining portion of the abbey church of St Peter and St Paul, and a window of the Tudor palace, through which can be seen the tower of the nearby cathedral. St Ethelbert’s Tower collapsed on 10 October 1822. In 1844, the site was purchased by Alexander Hope, who helped establish a missionary college on part of it.