The Specimen and Representation: Visualisations of Natural Knowledge in Sir Hans Sloane’s Collection

Felicity Roberts (King’s College London)

In the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, naturalists seeking to visualize and classify the natural world began to create taxonomies of objects based on limited differentia, a development that has been called the advent of the “age of systems” (Ogilvie, 2006). While this change has sometimes been characterised as the point when natural history “stopped seeing” (Findlen, 1996), this paper explores whether in fact at least in Britain, pre-Linnaeus, it created for naturalists a heightened awareness of the gap between the thing and natural knowledge, and the bridging role representation performed between the two, encouraging naturalists and artists to experiment with technique and opening up a space for play.

This drawing shows Edwards recording what he first believed was an unknown species & experimenting with different methods of representation. In his Natural History of Uncommon Birds Edwards later named this bird the ‘least butcher-bird’.

The Bearded Titmouse of Albin, The Hen, c.1731, British Library. Illustration by George Edwards in watercolour, gouache, and dragonfly wings.
‘The Bearded Titmouse of Albin, The Hen’, c.1731, British Library. Illustration by George Edwards in watercolour, gouache, and dragonfly wing.


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