An Image Interview with Louisiane Ferlier

Plate from first volume of the Philosophical Transactions, 1665

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Louisiane Ferlier, Digitisation Project Manager at the Royal Society, in charge of the Royal Society Journal Collections: Science in the making. I have come to the project as an historian of ideas, my research investigates the role of religious institutions in the circulation of knowledge in the 17th century.

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

I have chosen the engraved plate inserted with issue 5 of the first volume of the Philosophical Transactions. It is composed of four figures corresponding to three articles from the issue published by Henry Oldenburg on July 3rd 1665.

Figure 1 relates to an article by Robert Moray entitled ‘An Account, how Adits & Mines are wrought at Liege without Air-shafts’. It shows a brick chimney and details how air, ash and minerals circulate within it.

Figure 2 and 3 are connected to the previous article as they show the promising invention by a Monsieur Du Son of a tool to ‘break easily and speedily the hardest Rocks’ which was communicated to Oldenburg by Moray. Resembling a stake, the tool was to be used as a chisel to drill through hard rocks when constructing mineshafts.

Figure 4 is the best known of the group and illustrates a two-part article communicating Robert Boyle’s description of a monstrous calf. The calf was born with a monstrous head described in the article as having ‘no sign of any Nose (…) the two Eyes were united into one Double Eye […] Lastly, that just above the Eyes, as it were in the midst of the Forehead, was a very deep depression, and out of that grew a kind of double Purse or Bagg.’ Alerted by the farmer of the monstrous birth, Boyle ordered for the head to be cut and preserved in alcohol.

Why have you chosen this image? 

This image frames powerfully the variety of topics discussed during the early meetings of the Royal Society and the wide range of scientific illustrations that can be found within the Philosophical Transactions. The juxtaposition of figures representing engineering tools next to the sketch of a zoological wonder captures the origins of the two strands of science which were separated into the A and B sides of the Philosophical Transactions in 1887 (A = mathematical, physical and engineering sciences and B = biological sciences).

I find that this juxtaposition creates a particularly interesting tableau reflecting the complexity of disciplinary boundaries in the early modern period. Considered as a single plate within a single publication, the plate unites scientific illustrations vastly different in their aims, executions as well as subjects. And, taken separately, each of the figures would lead us to discover a different network of correspondents, witnesses and collaborators, all supporting science in the making in a different way.

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

The aim of the project I manage at the Royal Society is to create a new digital archive of its original journal collections. Illustrations such as this one are what motivated me to join the project in the first place. The archive will contain this image, its related articles and several thousands of others in high definition. It will allow researchers, curious visitors and future scholars to wonder about this strange creature, and wander from its representation to its fascinating description by Boyle. Or, to discover that mines are discussed throughout the history of the Royal Society and that a fascinating history of mining could be retraced from this illustration to the twentieth century through the pages of the Philosophical Transactions.

In many ways this image symbolizes the richness of the Philosophical Transactions as an archive of science.

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

I also picked this image precisely because I know very little about the original draughtsman of each figure as they could have been drawn by various people. The digging tool for instance could have been drawn by Monsieur du Son, its inventor, or equally, by Moray who communicated it to Oldenburg. The calf’s head, although it is described by Boyle, could have been drawn by another observer after it was preserved in alcohol (which would explain why the observer did not include the rest of the body, which Boyle did see before he had the head removed). The many hands through which each sketch must have travelled before that of the engraver are unknown, and even the engraver did not sign this specific plate.

This is an ideal example of a puzzle to offer to the ‘Making visible project’ where each piece is, in itself, another puzzle. Knowing about the specific of the making-process would reveal much about the circulation of knowledge in the early modern period.

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

The composite nature of the plate displays side by side two technical drawings and a natural history drawing. Much of the scholarship which discusses early image-making focuses on natural history but technical drawings used fascinating techniques to ‘truly’ and ‘faithfully’ represent science in the making. The engraving also encapsulates the complexity of scientific illustrations: without a scale or measures dedicated to each figure, the tool is of the same proportions to the shaft and the calf’s head with its dark lines attracts any viewer’s eye away from the technical drawings. The composition of the plate therefore transforms the experience of each figure. Moreover, each figure depends very heavily on its description included in the related articles to make any sense, yet, there is no explicit reference on the plate to the article.

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

I always thought that representing the calf’s head in profile was a strange choice: if the calf has no nose and a single eye, a front-facing view would be an easier perspective to depict the monstrosity. Accentuating the twisted tongue and the protuberance on the forehead, I find that the profile view makes him look nearly mischievous: as if he was pulling its tongue and winking at the reader.

An Image Interview with Katy Barrett


Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions, 1708
Map of the Philippines from the Philosophical Transactions 26, 1708

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Dr Katy Barrett, Curator of Art at Royal Museums Greenwich. I’m a historian of art and science, coming out of a research background that’s also spread across history of collecting, anthropology, numismatics and natural history. I work on the 17th and 18th centuries, on maritime and exploration art, scientific illustration and visual culture. I’m interested, at the broadest level in how images and texts worked together, and how images were part of knowledge-making in the period. In the 21st century, I’m interested in how interdisciplinary collaboration and digital humanities allow us to conduct, discuss and disseminate ideas. I blog and tweet as Spoons on Trays.

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

My image is ‘A Map of the New Philippine Islands’ published in the Philosophical Transactions in January 1708. It was contributed along with extracts of two letters from Jesuit missionaries describing the newly ‘discovered’ islands shown in the map, how it had been constructed and an account of the indigenous inhabitants who had shared this knowledge. It shows the group of islands between what were then the Moluccos, the Old Philippines, and the Marianas, and mixes a variety of information in showing the ocean space. The plate is engraved by A. Johnston.

What strikes you about this image? Why does it interest you?

What is striking about this image is how it mixes indigenous knowledge with conventions of European mapmaking and engraving. The map is situated in relationship to the equator (or equinoctial line) running horizontally across the bottom, and the grid of degrees of latitude up each side. Longitude is mentioned in the text but not shown visually. Otherwise, however, the islands are shown based on the number of days taken to travel around the circumference or from the nearest neighbour. Their shapes and relationships, most notably are, as Father Le Gobien tells us, ‘not made by Europeans, for none have yet been upon these Islands, but by the Islanders themselves … Some of the most skilful of ’em ranged upon a Table as many little Stones as there are Islands belonging to their Country; and marked out, as well as they could, the Name of each, it’s Extent, and Distance from the others’ (Philosophical Transactions, 1708-1709, 26, p.197).

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

This resonates for me on two levels. One is the complex mixing of different types and processes of knowledge, and the attempt to map an indigenous knowledge of ocean and island space within a European convention that was itself in development in the period. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where this knowledge was conveyed. The other is in what is left unsaid in the process of image making. We are told that ‘the Map, thus traced out by the Indians … is here ingraved’, but so much is missing from that trail of inscription. The indigenous contributors laid out stones on a table, we’re told, but someone then had to interpret that on paper and combine it with European ideas. What was A. Johnston then given to engrave and when? We must bear in mind that one of the letters was originally written in 1697, what has happened to the image in the intervening ten years?

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

This helps to make us think very carefully about how we understand and explain such images. The process of making this image is fundamental to how readers of the Philosophical Transactions would then understand these New Philippine Islands as well as their inhabitants. In the making of this map, the indigenous contributors are unusually visible, discussed as part of a larger project of cultural understanding and missionary conversion. It is the, presumably European, draughtsmen and engravers who are obscured.

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

I’d also love to know if a copy of this map made it back to the Filipino makers!


This is the first in a series of “Interview blogs” in which we ask historians, art historians, curators, and scientists to comment on images related to the Royal Society. We are interested in the different ways the interviewees respond to (sometimes the same) images.