An Image Interview with Ian Lawson

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Louse from Robert Hooke, Micrographia, 1665

 

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

Ian Lawson, historian and philosopher of early modern science. I recently finished a PhD in the Unit for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Sydney, about the seventeenth century natural philosopher Robert Hooke and his work with early microscopes. I am interested in his fiddly daily activities with the instruments and how they are interpreted and seen, not only in terms of the work he produced but the social position of such work. Now I’m visiting the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftgeschichte in Berlin, and planning out a new project about the optical instruments which became fashionable in Enlightenment Europe.

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

This is Hooke’s famous louse from his 1665 book Micrographia. Hooke drew the images for the book himself. He was an apprentice, for a while, to the portrait painter Peter Lely, and became an accomplished draftsman. The newly-founded Royal Society brought Hooke to London from Oxford for the express purpose of drawing insects, observed through a microscope, as gifts for King Charles II. The project morphed into a book, printed with the money and the blessing of the Royal Society, illustrated with 38 such pictures. This is one of the last, and folds out to the size of a small cat. It was a book which transformed things so small that no one had ever seen them before into household objects.

(There’s a video of William Poole talking about this aspect of the book and showing the page containing the flea, which gives a good impression of it’s size and heft. The book itself is on Project Gutenberg.)

Why have you chosen this image? 

It’s an impressive image considered solely as an early modern engraving, and a masterpiece of natural historical drawing (though it’s not my favourite drawing from Micrographia to look at). What grabs me about it is that it’s not a drawing of only a louse, but of Hooke as well. It’s his hair the creature is gripping, and his blood that colours the shapes in its abdomen. The picture relates the details of a louse, but it also represents, in a more abstract sense, a particular relationship that Hooke had with the world around him. In the blurb accompanying the image, he talks excitedly about keeping the louse in a jar, and starving it so when it’s let out it’ll feast on him and he can watch it swell up like a balloon.

Not everyone thought this to be an appropriate way to relate to a louse. (It is not, after all, the kind of creature that many people celebrate. Think about the creepy tenor of John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ or, later, Robbie Burns’ outrage at watching a louse keep polite company in ‘To a Louse’). Margaret Cavendish, for example, a keen natural philosopher and the Dutchess of Newcastle, wondered what beggars would think about this drawing. A better reason to examine these critters would be to show how to avoid their bites! She thought Hooke’s morbid interest was useless at best, and drawing such beguiling pictures risked distracting people from research that was genuinely socially useful.

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

I’m interested in how new conceptions of nature and new methods of investigation became fashionable and socially popular. Why did Hooke, but not others, think it was interesting or appropriate to display a louse in this way? It’s funny now to think of this image or the microscope as controversial, but in early modern Europe it sure had it’s critics, both in popular and philosophical writing. Cavendish’s worry was, partly, the perfectly reasonable (and still current) one that educated and wealthy people could better spend their time trying to solve real problems. Considering the louse not only as a new kind of natural historical illustration but as a symbol of this disagreement makes it interesting to track the following popularity of the microscope. What did it mean that there was a fashion for them in the following century or so, and how much did their fashionability influence scientists’ opinions of the instrument?

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

Hooke also gave public lectures and demonstrated instruments in front of audiences, but there’s a sense in which the knowledge in Micrographia had to be a printed book. Hooke’s images, for all their naturalism, are not really of anything that he actually saw, or of anything directly visible through his lenses. He emphasises in the book that he drew pictures only after several examinations of an object, as he also lets on when he talks about watching the louse feed from him. He saw it in various shapes, positions, and more or less well-fed. His wizardry with lenses and light created only temporary glimpses at ever-changing objects, so image making was an essential part of knowledge making in that drafting, engraving, and printing also ‘fixes’ the knowledge into a stable form that can be returned to and re-examined.

What significance does this image have in the context of your field or work?

It shows, I think, what was essentially a new methodology in natural philosophy. Hooke loved that he could see through the louse to its insides. Several of his observations make this point, and he argued for his whole life that microscopes were the best method we had of discovering the ‘inner’ or ‘secret’ workings of things. To see inside objects without one, one would have to make incisions like an anatomist or dissolve things in acid or fire like an alchemist. With a microscope, he wrote, he could peek “through these delicate and pellucid teguments of the bodies of Insects” and, like a voyeur, watch Nature in action: “quietly peep in at the windows, without frighting her out of her usual byas” (Micrographia, observation 43). It’s an important and poetic moment in the history of natural scientific methodology. For one, it’s definitely in line with the fashion in Hooke’s time for viewing the world mechanistically, as if he would see the clockwork inside insects that made them tick. But it’s also vaguely democratic, in that doing so does not require a furnace or any other particularly spectacular equipment. It’s both a recognition that there’s more to be discovered about the world than is readily apparent, and that the method by which to do so is not hugely inaccessible.

An Intaglio Introduction

By Katie Reinhart

As my archaic dagger gets stuck, then skips along the piece of shiny copper, I wonder ‘how is this helping me as a historian?’

An engraving burin with a piece of copper
An engraving burin with a piece of copper

The sharp object in my hand is a burin, a carving tool used for copper plate engraving. At the moment I am trying my hand (unsuccessfully) at the technique of intaglio engraving, an early modern printing method.

Intaglio printing (which includes the techniques of engraving and etching) refers to the technique where the line incised into the plate (either with burin, dry point needle, or acid) is what will eventually appear dark when the plate is printed. This is in contrast to relief printing (like woodcuts) where what you carve away are actually the spaces that remain blank or un-inked during printing. All three of these techniques were used in the 17th century, although engraving and etching were most commonly used in the images created for the Royal Society’s publications like the Philosophical Transactions and Robert Hooke’s Micrographia.

An example of intaglio printing in Robert Hooke's Micrographia, 1665
An example of intaglio printing in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, 1665

Thus, my colleague Sietske and I are attempting to learn the technique of engraving in hopes that it will help us further understand the relationship between graphic skill and image creation. 

@British Museum
Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros is a famous example of a woodcut, 1515, @British Museum

Our ‘intaglio project’ is in its early days, and over the next several months we will post here about how we are progressing and our reflections on what we have learned in the process. So far, we have started at the very beginning. How to hold a burin, how to apply pressure to incise the copper, and how to clip off the curly ‘spur’ created if you do it all correctly.

Making Visible Postdoc Sietske Fransen tries her hand with the burin
Making Visible Postdoc Sietske Fransen tries her hand with the burin

Here are a few things I learned so far:

  • Engraving is difficult. I knew this, but like any skill one takes a go at, I have a new appreciation for the long training and apprenticeships necessary to learn to deploy such a craft, let alone with a high degree of finesse or skill.
  • Engraving is a completely different skill than drawing. The fine lines of engraved images almost make us think they were drawn with a pen, when in fact engraving is really a form of carving. The burin is not held like a pencil or quill with the fingers, but instead is grasped in the palm of the hand and driven along the plate. Instead of moving your wrist to make curves (as you would in painting or drawing) the burin always moves forward in a straight line and it is the plate that is moved to create a curved line.

    The challenging task of holding the burin
    The challenging task of holding the burin
  • Engraving is a complicated and multi-step process. I have also developed a new appreciation for the numerous steps involved in preparing a plate, engraving, cleaning, inking, and printing before a finished image is produced. With the burin and engraver carves lines that, after many more steps, are filled with ink and ultimately create the marks on the page. However, there are many more steps between wielding your burin and the final printed imaged. For instance, since engraving is a form of carving, you have to recon with the material carved away. In the case of burin engraving, this manifests as a thing curly copper ‘spur’ at the end of every line you engrave. These spurs need to be gently clipped off from the plate’s surface to get them out of your way, but also so they do not impact the shape of the line when the plate is printed.

    Copper Spurs
    Copper Spurs

Thus far my dilettante attempts at this 17th-century technique have yielded little more than a few scratched lines on a plate. I am working on making my lines consistent, and regulating pressure to varying their thickness, before I move onto the next challenge – curved lines. Check back here in the coming months as Sietske and I will be documenting the trials and tribulations of our intaglio project, as well as how it is making us reflect upon and think differently about the images that we study and the processes involved in making them.

 

Further reading:

David Landau and Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print: 1470-1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).

Pamela Smith and Tonny Beentjes, “Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques,” Renaissance Quarterly 63, 1, (2010), pp.128-179.

Ad Stijnman, Engraving and Etching 1400-2000. A History of the Development of Manual Intaglio Printmaking Processes (Amsterdam: HES & De Graaf, 2012).