Micrography in Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection

by Frances Hughes


Fig 1: Micrographic text reproduced to form a diagrammatic projection of the Globe, c.1702. Pasted into Samuel Pepys’ Calligraphy Collection, Volume III, p.326. Size of vellum: 55x45mm. Image Credit: By permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Towards the end of his life, Samuel Pepys began collecting samples of medieval manuscripts, calligraphy copy-books, and other miscellaneous textual fragments, which were then pasted into three albums to form his calligraphy collection [Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge, 2981-3]. Within Pepys’ social and intellectual context there was a deep and multifaceted interest in the visual and material history of script. This blog post will briefly explore one manifestation of Pepys and his contemporaries’ interest in letter-forms: micrography. 

Volume III of Pepys’ collection features two pages dedicated to the art of ‘micrography’ or miniature writing. The content of some of these tiny sentences are invisible to the naked eye and instead appear as faint lines, made legible only when viewed through a microscope. Each of the samples are accompanied by labels, which explain their textual content in normal handwriting. The art of writing in miniature held a mythologised status as the ultimate demonstration of a writing master’s dexterity and was associated with extreme powers of vision. This tradition was rooted in the classical account of a parchment copy of The Iliad in miniature, which was so small that it could fit inside a nutshell. Part of the appeal of this legend was the fact that The Iliad was known for its epic length. Rather than The Iliad, sixteenth and seventeenth-century micrographic performances usually consisted of authoritative biblical and liturgical passages (The Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments) rendered within the circumference of a particular coin. By using such familiar texts and the standardised diameters of coins, writing masters could more tangibly convey the magnitude – or, more appropriately, minuteness – of their achievement. Early users of the microscope devised various means for measuring the magnified features of natural specimens accurately, such as using grains of sand or the diameter of human hairs to understand the relative scale of magnification. Authoritative blocks of text and individual letters arguably provided similarly familiar notational markers through which comparative looking could be conducted down a microscope.

Micrographic texts provided legible artefacts through which the growing gentlemanly fashion for microscopic observation could be practiced. Pepys’ collection indicates that writing masters responded to new technologies of magnification by producing witty calligrams that were only visible using a microscope. The micrographic sample pictured above appears to the naked eye as a diagrammatic drawing of the globe upon the meridian, featuring navigational lines and markers such as the equator and the poles. The miniature text forming these lines is an English translation of Herman Hugo’s description of God’s creation of the world. The poem describes God copying his creation “o’er again in Miniature” to create Adam, “with all the Art of Heav’n design’d,/ The mortal Image of th’Immortal Mind.” Adam’s mind is described as a miniature microcosmic version of the entire world, a bridge between the creator and creation. The human artifice required to create this feat of micrography can therefore be seen, in turn, to mimic God’s creative act. Moreover, the relationship between mankind’s capacity for deciphering God’s creation and the process of reading miniature lettering recalls the famous reference to Adam in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, where he describes the patterns of nature under the microscope as a form of divine language: “[W]ho knows, but the Creator may, in those characters, have written and engraven many of his most mysterious designs and counsels, and given man a capacity, which, assisted with diligence and industry, may be able to read and understand them.”

We know that Pepys read Robert Hooke’s Micrographia avidly and purchased his own microscope. Intellectually inclined gentlemen like Pepys could utilise their new optical aids by training them on the products of human artifice, practising their observational skills on texts that were more immediately ‘legible’ than biological specimens. These tiny samples evidence the diffusion of broader intellectual concerns on topics such as microscopy, natural philosophy and theology within the scribal arts, centred on interactions between intellectually-engaged clients such as Pepys and the writing masters that they patronised.

An Image Interview with Ian Lawson

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.

Figures in the Diary of Robert Hooke

Felicity Henderson, University of Exeter

Robert Hooke, the early Royal Society’s paid ‘curator of experiments’, kept a detailed diary about his daily life from 1672 to 1694 (though with a long break in the mid-1680s). The diary tells us a lot about Hooke’s working practices and especially his networks of contacts in London. It’s not just an interesting text, though – Hooke occasionally adds a figure amongst his cramped lines of prose. What might these sketches tell us about Hooke’s use of scientific images?

Hooke’s diary, or memoranda, were not meant for anyone other than himself and were primarily intended as a register of his daily activities – things he wanted to remember. Some of Hooke’s figures clearly support this aspect of the diary. But why include pictures as well as verbal descriptions? I think some of these figures show Hooke in the act of thinking things through, trying out new ideas or clarifying old ones. One of the simplest figures in the diary is this drawing of the sun as it rose on 15 June 1676.

Drawing of sun rising
Rising sun, 15 June 1676. London Metropolitan Archives CLC/495/MS01758. © London Metropolitan Archives (reproduced by permission).

The diary entry reads

saw ye sun Rise very ellipticall [figure inserted here] thus the vnder side much flatter then the vpper.’

The wording suggests that Hooke first thought of describing the rising sun as ‘ellipticall’. He then realised this didn’t fully express his observation and added the figure. However he still wasn’t happy, and added further explanation focussing on the disparity between the flatter underside and the rounded top of the sun. Possibly at this point he went back over his figure to emphasise the roundness of the upper curve, as this line is much stronger than the rest of the image. It seems that even this relatively straightforward figure forced Hooke to clarify his description of the sunrise.

Other figures represent much more complex ideas.

Drawing of Richard Reeve's glass furnace
Glassworking furnace, 30 March 1677. London Metropolitan Archives CLC/495/MS01758. © London Metropolitan Archives (reproduced by permission).

This is Richard Reeve’s contrivance for his cementing glasse plates in his furnace’. Reeve had succeeded his more famous father as a maker of optical instruments, and Hooke had previously visited him in February 1674, when he had watched Reeve

joyning glasse plates by grinding them together either by a square joynt [first figure] or by an oblique joynt thus. [second figure] or by an vndulated joynt thus [third figure]’.

Drawing of different methods of joining glass plates
Methods of joining glass, 23 February 1674. London Metropolitan Archives CLC/495/MS01758. © London Metropolitan Archives (reproduced by permission).

Hooke had commented in his diary at the time

I suppose the whole secret consists in the make & heating of the fornace and cooling it wch is neer a week in doing’.

The follow-up visit in 1677 thus represented an opportunity to understand more about Reeve’s ‘secret’ furnace design. The details of the sketch are linked with extensive explanatory notes keyed to letters indicating the different parts of the furnace. It’s interesting to see Hooke using this technique, standard in contemporary scientific images, in his diary. It gives this rough sketch an authority we might not have expected in the informal context of a personal document, and raises the question of what Hooke might have planned to do with the information preserved here. Was it intended to be passed on to Hooke’s philosophical associates?

Other figures in the diary document Hooke’s own inventions, among them the ‘Horizontall Sayles’ drawn in September 1674.

Drawing of Hooke's invention of 'horizontal sails'
Horizontal sails, 26 September 1674. London Metropolitan Archives CLC/495/MS01758. © London Metropolitan Archives (reproduced by permission).

Lacking the detailed annotation of the furnace image, this sketch accompanies a brief note:

Inuented ye Perfection of Horizontall Sayles. by a poysd & turning sayle see ye figure’.

We should read ‘Wind’ and ‘Water’ on the left-hand side as part of the figure: these are aspects of the system more clearly expressed in words than in the rather vague wavy and dashed lines that surround the sails.

These sketches attest to Hooke’s visual approach to the new philosophy, suggesting that thinking about things through graphical representation was something he did routinely, not just when he was explaining his ideas to others. Most of the figures in the diary act alongside words, although there are occasional examples where they replace them entirely (as, for example, tiny drawings of spectacles – quicker than writing out the word in full!). In the context of the diary, the relationship between figures and time is also significant. The diary figures are pinned to a specific date, locating them in time in a way that might have aided in any future priority disputes. But equally, Hooke was clearly not drawing them at the point of observation, discussion or invention. He wrote his diary entries after the event, and therefore the figures must represent some further thought, rather than being an immediate record (just as diary text is always composed after the fact); so we need to see these images as having been influenced by the passage of time.

These are just a few of the figures in Hooke’s diary, but they help us to see how he approached the problem of describing and recording observations and inventions in a private context.


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).