George Gabb, ‘The Physical Laboratory of the Académie des Sciences’ and Unpicking the Visual Worlds of the Royal Society

Katy Barrett, Curator of Art Collections, Science Museum

In 1948, the Science Museum acquired a drawing by French artist Sébastian Le Clerc entitled ‘The Physical Laboratory of the Académie des Sciences’. It formed part of the collection of George Hugh Gabb, chemist and antiquary, and joined the museum with a group of instrument makers’ trade cards. Gabb had exhibited this drawing at a Royal Society soirée on 18 May 1938 and lent it for illustration in the Illustrated London News three days later, including a detailed key identifying 115 individual instruments. Proof engravings of the image also exist and have been interpreted by historians of science and collecting as showing the collections of the Académie after its move to the Louvre in 1699. However, art historians have seen other drawn versions of the composition as an idealised view of Le Clerc’s own ‘cabinet’, demonstrating his virtuosity across the arts and sciences. This paper will consider the legacy of such a drawing within the histories of science and art, and how a collector like Gabb has shaped our historiographies of institutions like the Royal Society.

Drawing said to be original of "The Physical Laboratory of the Academie des Sciences" by Sebastian Le Clerc, c1700. Ink and wash; 22.5 x 37 cm. Copywork. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum
Drawing said to be original of “The Physical Laboratory of the Academie des Sciences” by Sebastian Le Clerc, c1700. Ink and wash; 22.5 x 37 cm. Copywork. © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum