An Image Interview with Alice Marples

Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan in Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1686.
Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan from Nehemiah Grew, Musaeum Regalis Societatis, 1681

Tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Alice Marples, historian of science and medicine in the 17th and 18th centuries, broadly interested in the social and cultural history of knowledge collection and exchange. My recently completed thesis explored diverse collecting and correspondence practices within medical and natural historical communities in Britain in the early eighteenth century, and examined how the physician and naturalist Hans Sloane influenced the institutionalisation and popularisation of science in Britain. Currently a postdoctoral research associate at the John Rylands Research Institute at the University of Manchester, working on medical education in Manchester between 1750-1850.

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

This is an illustration entitled ‘Studies of a Crocodile or the Leviathan.’ It is a table from the 1686 edition of Musaeum Regalis Societatis, which was the catalogue of the contents of the Royal Society Repository (or Museum) written by its Keeper, Nehemiah Grew, and first published in 1681. It is a three foot, fold-out picture of one of the prize objects of the collection, a fifteen-foot crocodile.

Why have you chosen this image?

Crocodiles might be said to be symbolic of the Renaissance practice of natural history collecting. They were the jewel in most virtuoso’s collections and regularly feature in the visual representations of Cabinets of Curiosity or Kunstkammer, such as in Ferrante Imperato’s Dell’Historia Naturale (1599), which showed the crocodile suspended from the ceiling in his collection displayed at the Palazzo Gravina in Naples. Their ferocious appearance and exotic qualities helped to inspire wonder in the glory of God, his natural world, and those who were able to possess extraordinary pieces of it.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

For me, this image represents the ways in which the Society argued for a new, modern kind of science through the tropes and traditions of earlier forms of inquiry. Grew’s inclusion of the crocodile directly invokes the spectacle of the early modern scholarly Cabinet while simultaneously situating the Society’s Repository as its rational successor, bringing the crocodile down from the ceiling, dissecting, measuring and displaying its interior skeleton for all to see. Grew’s catalogue was a lavishly illustrated folio, one of the first scientific works produced entirely by subscription. It was a luxury commodity designed to popularise the work of the Society within polite circles, and invoke wonder not only in God but in the instruments and methods of ‘the New Science’ in bringing it under control and revealing its inner mysteries. I think that it is particularly pertinent that Grew explicitly includes a reference to the creature as the Leviathan in the Book of Job – a monstrous creature which no man can harness… Except, perhaps, in a company of natural philosophers.

Do you know anything about the making-process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?

Though it is not clear who made the drawing, the text accompanying it states that the specimen itself was ‘Given to Sir Robert Southwell; to whom it was sent from the East-Indies.’ Objects, drawings and scraps of knowledge were being sent from all over the world to private collectors and scientific societies via extensive and overlapping scholarly and commercial correspondence networks, all of which depended on multiple forms of authority. In the Catalogue, this picture is accompanied by an extensive description, the longest in the work, which includes information from many different accounts of the crocodile from ancient times to the present. It therefore places the Catalogue, and the Royal Society, fully in contemporary context of information exchange and, particularly, the increasing number of natural historical works attempting to compile, compare and systematise this in-flood of information about the world. Representing the skeleton of the crocodile according to scale alongside this text linked these efforts, the material with the historical, and implied that the Royal Society was an integral part of this process of knowledge production. Further, that it represented the sole means of epistemological arbitration.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

Also on this page are drawings of ‘An Elephant’s Tusk’, ‘A Rattle Snak’s tail’ and ‘The Wessan’ (the windpipe of the crocodile) – all chosen, perhaps, for their similar aesthetic qualities. This helps to remind us that the comparative acts of looking in the physical space of the collection were also mirrored on paper and engineered through texts, and that the material boundaries between objects were liminal. Catalogues reflected, disseminated and imagined physical stocks of knowledge, interacting with published tracts, tacit knowledge and correspondence networks, allowing individuals to work with collections from a distance. The arrangement of similar but diverse objects together was designed, in part, to draw links between them: Grew’s Catalogue extended this comparative reach out from the Repository, to readers in the comfort of their own homes, with their own libraries, collections, reports and borrowed objects.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

Grew’s catalogue was so successful at creating an image of power and intellectual authority for the Royal Society – an image which was retained through the Philosophical Transactions and the personal correspondence networks of Fellows – that visitors in the eighteenth century were often appalled by the relatively humble nature of the institution when they went to visit. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, for example, wrote in 1710 of his shock that ‘the finest instruments and other articles (which Grew describes), [lie] not only in no sort of order or tidiness but covered with dust, filth and coal-smoke, and many of them broken and utterly ruined.’ I think this should serve to remind us that the physical possession of objects or knowledge was not necessarily as important as historians have sometimes deemed it, and that there was always a distance between the image and reality of the Royal Society.