An Image Interview with Frances Willmoth

John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis (1729): plate 13 of 25

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

I am Dr Frances Willmoth. I have recently retired as Archivist at Jesus College, Cambridge, but retain an affiliation to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge. A large part of my academic life has been involved with the careers of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and his patron Sir Jonas Moore (1618-1679).

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

I have chosen a plate from Flamsteed’s posthumously published Atlas Coelestis (1729). It shows the constellation Monoceros – that is, the Unicorn – with Canis Major and Canis Minor.

Why have you chosen this image?

I’ve chosen something from the star atlas because the struggle to get it published had such a profound influence on the course of the last decade and a half of the astronomer’s life. This particular plate seems to me especially characterful, and artistically satisfying. The drafting of the artwork is credited to the well-known painter Sir James Thornhill.

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

The chequered history of Flamsteed’s publications reflects the huge difficulty of publishing anything involving such enormous costs and technical challenges. The astronomer started a search for external funding for the publishing of his observations, star catalogue and atlas in the summer of 1703, by talking to one of the royal physicians and to Dr Martin Lister (FRS). His campaign eventually led to his securing a grant from Prince George of Denmark (Queen Anne’s consort). The subsequent unhappy history is well known, as the committee set up to supervise the expenditure disagreed with Flamsteed over how the project should be approached. The first edition of the Historia Coelestis (1712) was largely produced without the astronomer’s oversight and he rejected it as “spurious”. An extended second edition was not completed until 1725, some years after his death, and the star atlas even later.

Do you know anything about the making process of the image? 

Once the star positions had been established, the drafting of images for the plates was begun by one of Flamsteed’s observatory assistants, Thomas Weston. But he suffered from ill health and moved on in 1706 (becoming a schoolmaster in Greenwich). The connection of the finished plates with Thornhill dates from much later on, as a letter written by former Observatory assistant Crosthwait on 19 November 1720 reveals: “As to drawing the images … the famous Sir James Thornhill has undertaken this part, purely out of gratitude for favours formerly received from Mr Flamsteed”. In the previous decade Thornhill had spent a long time in Greenwich producing a spectacular decorative scheme for the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College. Flamsteed himself appears in one of those paintings, with an assistant and his most famous astronomical instrument, the mural arc.

                  We don’t know what sources Thornhill looked to when it came to drawing the images for the Atlas, though he undoubtedly already had a large stock of suitable models. We know more about the lengthy process of getting the plates engraved. This was funded by Mrs Flamsteed, and is described in a series of letters written by Crosthwait to Abraham Sharp (another former Observatory assistant, who prepared the northern and southern planispheres). In 1722 Crosthwait travelled to the Netherlands to see if he could get plates engraved there more cheaply than in London. Consequently four of them were engraved in Amsterdam (Aquarius, Gemini, Cetus and one other), though the quality of the work proved disappointing and the rest were produced in London; all were printed in London.

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

It shows up how inadequate it might be to simply describe such an image as a source of knowledge. At one level it was intended to have that role, accurately reflecting the positions of stars as laid down in Flamsteed’s star catalogue (1712 and 1725). But the Thornhill connection places the plates squarely in the domain of fine art, reflecting the fact that the volume was aimed at noblemen’s or gentlemen’s libraries, as much as a being a working tool for future astronomers.

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

One point that comes across clearly here is that (as is not uncommon in the history of science) an achievement notionally credited to a single person in fact relied on the substantial contributions made by a number of collaborators. Here one must credit not only Flamsteed himself, for having produced the data, but also: the persistence of his widow Margaret and his former assistant (and niece’s husband) James Hodgson, who appear as editors of the volumes; the assistance given gratis by two more former Observatory assistants, Sharp and Crosthwait; Weston and Thornhill; and several engravers and at least one printer.

*Frances Willmoth is also the author of the children’s book Astronomouse. Copies can be purchased in person at the Whipple Library in Cambridge.

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.

Johannes Swammerdam’s Scientific Images (I)

By Eric Jorink

Fig. 1: Drawing by Johannes Swammerdam, Royal Society Archives LBO/6/58 © Royal Society

On 4 March 1673, Johannes Swammerdam sent a letter to Henry Oldenburg, including these images (fig. 1). Only an abstract of the letter appeared in the Philosophical Transactions (19 May 1673, page 6041), without including what was basically the point of the message: a visual report of observations of the pulmonary arteries of a frog, and of the genital system of the horn-noosed beetle. As a biographer of Swammerdam, I find these images fascinating, both for their intrinsic quality, as for the fact that they are a nice point of departure for some thoughts on the role of the visual in early modern scientific culture.

Like Robert Hooke, Swammerdam was a skilled draftsman. During his years as a student in Leiden (1661-1667) he did pioneering research on insects, toads and other forms of low life. Swammerdam maintained that all creatures, great and small, obeyed the same laws of nature. He rejected the theory of spontaneous generation, according to which insects were devoid of an internal anatomy and had their origin in decaying flesh or plants.

Fig 2: The water gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). © Royal Society
Fig 2: The water-gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665). © Royal Society
Fig. 3: the water gnat, as depicted by Robert Hooke in Micrographia (1665) and Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Swammerdam depicts the creature in its context, both life sized and enlarged (ca. 15 times).
Fig. 3: the water-gnat, as depicted Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Swammerdam depicts the creature in its context, both life sized and enlarged (ca. 15 times). © University Library Leiden

Swammerdam considered it his duty to point to the marvels of God’s creation. Swammerdam was very much aware of his talent as an anatomist and draftsman. He applauded the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), Redi’s Esperienze intorno alla generazione degl’insetti (1668) and Malpighi’s De Bombyce (published by the Royal Society in 1669) and considered them as allies in his campaign against spontaneous generation.

In his Historia insectorum generalis (1669) Swammerdam demonstrated that all insects come from eggs, and all go through a stage-like development. Occasionally, he also went into a visual dialogue with Hooke (figs 2 and 3). Whereas the latter famously had represented the alien micro-world with no visual clues of the absolute size and context of the objects portrayed, Swammerdam employed a technique in which each creature was represented both life-size, and magnified. The microscope was only used occasionally. Graphically, he showed the uniformity of nature, pointing at similarities between the development of an insect, frog and carnation (figs 4 and 5).

Figs 4 and 5; the stage-like development of the louse; and the frog and carnation as depicted in Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Visually, the uniformity of nature is demonstrated. Each creature is depicted life sized, and enlarged in various stages of development.
Figs 4 and 5: The stage-like development of the louse; and the frog and carnation as depicted in Johannes Swammerdam, Historia generalis insectorum (1669). Visually, the uniformity of nature is demonstrated. Each creature is depicted life sized, and enlarged in various stages of development. © University Library Leiden
Fig. 5. © University Library Leiden

In Historia insectorum Swammerdam concentrated on the outward appearance of insects. Inspired by the work of Malpighi from 1670 he now focused on anatomizing and using the microscope more intensively. Studying and representing the inner parts of these tiny creatures required new visual techniques. Since Swammerdam observed what no one before him had seen, he had to train his eye with regard to the observations, and invent ways to represent them. Without external aid, showing the strange and previously unseen forms of isolated organs of a creature would make no sense.

The images Swammerdam sent to Oldenburg could be seen as experiments in form. Compared to the visual strategy he previously used, Swammerdam was now both zooming in and zooming out. To make an easy start: the creature depicted in figure V in the right lower corner marked A (see fig. 1 above) is easily recognizable as a nose-horned beetle (depicted at life size). The drawing is deceptively simple, but shows Swammerdam’s talent to represent the creature with just a few well-chosen lines and brushes of ink. Swammerdam deeply admired the work of artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), who at the end of the sixteenth century had made pioneering watercolors of all kinds of insects. We could read Swammerdam’s sketch as a self-aware introduction to the beholder – see how easily I can draw things familiar to you; you can also trust me when I show you places and things unknown to you. Later drawings by Swammerdam of the nose-horned beetle (fig. 5) are much more elaborated, and can be seen as explicit references not only to Hoefnagel but also to the works of art by Jacques de Gheyn (1565-1629) and even Albrecht Dürer.

Fig. 6: Some beetles; the male genitals system of the nose-horned beetle (fig. viii). Swammerdam drew this in 1678 for his Biblia Naturae; the manuscript, now kept in Leiden university Library, was only published in 1737. Leiden, UB, BPL 126B, fol. 31r. © University Library Leiden

By now, we should refer to the letter. By focusing on the creature’s inner parts, Swammerdam uses the strategy of both mapmakers and earlier anatomists: the legend. He writes: ‘Figure V expresses to the life (‘ad vivum exprimit’) the genitalia of the horn-nosed beetle. A the beetle, B the horny part of the penis, C the place from which the penis protrudes when erect….’ Etcetera. What we see are interior details: strangely shaped organs, curled lines, flower-shaped structures. Using a legend is a successful strategy here, and perhaps the only workable way in representing the previously unknown. Moreover, as Swammerdam occasionally stressed to his readers, the slightly stylized drawings also helped the observer who for the first time would enter this unknown territory to discern and identify the organs in there. Swammerdam also employs this strategy in the Figures I-IV (fig. 1), where he illustrates the passage in which he explains in painstaking detail the pulmonary artery system of the frog. These drawings are the few by Swammerdam I know of in which color is used. This had a practical reason: the drawings represent, as Swammerdam put it, ‘graphically’ (‘graphice exprimit’) how the structure within the lungs had been made visible by injecting colored wax. Hence, what we see is a representation of a preparation interacting with a text.

The point is, of course, that without the accompanying letter, the images become meaningless, and vice versa. Some of Swammerdam’s letters and images are still at the archives of the Royal Society (now separated, to be sure). They remind us that in the scientific culture of the 1670s the boundaries between words and images, and between science and art, were still rather fluent ones.

An image interview with Noah Moxham

Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London
Drawing of dissection of a rattle snake, RCP MS 618, f. 6r. @ Royal College of Physicians, London

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background? 

Noah Moxham; historian of science/book historian (the proportion varies according to what precisely I happen to be working on). I’m a postdoc on Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: The social, cultural and economic history of a learned journal 1665-2015, an AHRC-funded project at the University of St Andrews, and I’m interested in the construction, communication and afterlife of scientific knowledge in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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

These are the drawings – strictly speaking in an unknown hand, although we know for a virtual certainty that there are only four possible candidates including Tyson himself – accompanying Edward Tyson’s dissection and anatomical description of a rattlesnake from Virginia. They were made in February 1683 and shown to a meeting of the Royal Society that month, and subsequently published in the Philosophical Transactions (below is the engraving made for that purpose by Michael Burghers in Oxford).

Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).
Anatomy of a rattle snake, in Philosophical Transaction, vol. 13, nr. 144 (February 1683).

Why have you chosen this image?

I like it partly for what it represents – an attempt to treat a creature with all kinds of mythic associations and which had been historically represented in fantastical ways as an anatomical subject. But at the same time the drawing isn’t purely schematic: the upside-down head with the jaws wedged open, the fangs on display, the forked tongue extended, combine – I think deliberately – into a posture of threat. I think it’s meant to open up the subject to the possibility of objective examination but to retain a hint of the dangerous and the exotic.

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

It crops up at an important time in the history of the Royal Society, and of scientific publishing. It’s part of a series of anatomical dissections prepared by Tyson under the terms of his new appointment as Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society. He and a colleague, the chemist Frederick Slare, were to make sure between them that the Society was to be entertained with at least one chemical or anatomical demonstration per week. The Society’s reputation depended on the interest of the meetings and on the new discoveries it broadcast, or rebroadcast, to the learned world in print, and it was in a sad way on both fronts in late 1682 (largely the fault of the overworked Robert Hooke, who was doubling up as Secretary and curator of experiments, responsible for publishing a periodical, for keeping the Fellows entertained at meetings, for the Society’s record-keeping and correspondence, and still needing to earn a living on the side). But it also signals what I think is a broader effort on the part of the Society and its Fellows to promote serial or systematic work in natural history over the next several years; during that time the Society was directly involved in the production of numerous taxonomic and descriptive works on birds, fishes, British plants, insects, and ‘animals’ (mostly quadrupeds, with the odd fish, bird or cetacean thrown in).

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

We don’t know who drew these, but we know from Tyson’s list of the people who assisted at the dissection, all of whom were known as draughtsmen and illustrators, who the candidates are. They were Henry Hunt, Robert Hooke’s former apprentice and the Society’s Operator (in effect an all-purpose technical assistant); Richard Waller, a friend of Tyson’s and Hooke’s, the son of a painter and subsequently Secretary of the Society; and William Faithorne, a London draughtsman and engraver. In fact we know that they were all involved in producing the drawings of the snake, just not which particular drawings they were responsible for. It’s useful and important to know that this was a collaborative effort; to note Tyson’s determination to thank, and thus make public, the technical skills and assistance that were a necessary part of the process of making scientific knowledge in the early modern period; and to realise that this represents the beginning of a fairly long and productive research collaboration between Tyson and Waller in particular, working together over the next several years to produce a series of illustrated dissections – some published and some not. They worked together on the anatomies of small reptiles, insects and annelids – a green lizard, a caterpillar, and a tapeworm, among others. Their collaboration focussed especially on small creatures, some of which had only been opened up to detailed anatomical study by the advent of the microscope and which called for skilled, fiddly work in dissecting and examining.

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

Some of that significance is fairly specific – it comes from the fact that this was intended to be the beginning of a new, sustained and systematic research effort on the part of the Royal Society, one that it attempted to maintain by building it into the Society’s organisational structure. It’s part of a networked process; these drawings (and the anatomical preparations resulting from the dissection) were shown and discussed in meetings before being sent on to Oxford, where they were also examined by the emergent Oxford Philosophical Society. (This is why the drawing was engraved there and not in London). The relationship and the regular exchanges of drawings, objects and ideas between Oxford and London became an important part of the process of making natural knowledge in England during the 1680s.

It’s also worth noting that the engraving, in particular, marks the beginning of a significant upturn in both the frequency with which contributions to the Philosophical Transactions featured engraved illustrations and in their quality. The introduction of more, and better, illustrations is an important step in the development of scientific periodicals, from what were editorially compiled newssheets gathering letter-extracts, scraps of information and new discoveries into a credible site for researchers to advance fully-developed, self-sufficient claims to knowledge.

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

The object – in this case the animal – behind the drawing has a history, and one that we can trace to some extent. It was brought from North America for a Virginia Merchant (it was reported to have made the Transatlantic voyage in a basket, and gone four months without eating); it was exhibited to the Royal Society alive, and then dissected once dead. It’s not only a good example of the complexity and reach of the networks that brought objects and information to the attention of the Royal Society and organisations like it, but of the sheer haphazardness of that process. Tyson had previously dissected a porpoise brought ashore by Thames fishermen; and the Royal Society negotiated the purchase of a sick ostrich for Tyson to dissect in January 1683 (possibly one of twenty in the royal menagerie, a gift from the Moroccan ambassador to Charles II).