An Image Interview with Frances Willmoth, Part II

© Royal Society Picture Library 11405

This is a second blog which was written by the historian of science, Dr Frances Willmoth, who died on 2 December 2017. The first blog can be found here.

A Portrait of Jonas Moore

Dr Willmoth was archivist at Jesus College, Cambridge, and affiliated to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, where she wrote a PhD dissertation on Sir Jonas Moore, the patron of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal. This was published as Sir Jonas Moore: Practical Mathematics and Restoration Science (Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 1993). She also co-edited with Elizabeth Stazicker a facsimile edition of his magnificent 1658 Mapp of the Great Levell of the Fenns (Cambridgeshire Record Society, 2016).

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?
This is the frontispiece portrait from Moore’s Arithmetick, published in 1650. It shows the man himself, looking rather debonair, accompanied by various trappings that symbolise his identity as a mathematician and learned man. According to the caption at the foot, the engraving was produced in 1649, when the subject was in his 35th year (he was actually 31).

© Royal Society
Jonas Moore (1618-1679), mathematician and patron of science. Royal Society Picture Library image ref. 11405

Why have you chosen this image?
There are two known portraits of Moore, both in book frontispieces, and this is the earlier and more interesting one. The other comes from the 1660 second edition of the Arithmetick and simply shows an older and stouter man in plain garb. In 1649-50 Moore was at an early stage of trying to get established in a mathematical career, whereas by 1660 he was better known as a mathematician and surveyor and may have been keener to be portrayed as a successful gentleman rather than as a mathematician.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?
The image ought to resonate with anyone who has had to carve out a career for themselves from relatively humble beginnings or in unpredictable times. Moore was the son of a Lancashire yeoman farmer. He was well enough educated to secure a clerkship in the ecclesiastical courts of Durham, but was then thrown on his own resources when the courts were abolished in 1642. He claimed he started some serious study of mathematics in 1640; he re-emerges into public view in 1646 as a disciple of the leading mathematician William Oughtred. We don’t know what he did during the intervening Civil War period. In 1647 he was appointed maths tutor to the young Prince James, Duke of York; this was while the younger children of the ill-fated Charles I were in the custody of Parliament, and was a short episode of just a few months.
It sounds as though at some stages Moore found it a struggle to make a decent livelihood as a mathematical teacher and practitioner. From 1650, however, it was a different story: he secured a well-paid appointment as Surveyor to the company draining the Great Level of the Fens, and lived and worked in that region until 1657 or 1658. One may guess that the publication of the 1650 Arithmetick was a factor that helped impress his employers when he applied for the job.

Do you know anything about the making process of the image? Does knowing how the image was created affect your understanding of the image?
The copy of the frontispiece in the RS Library has been trimmed down to the extent that it no longer shows the makers’ names. But other copies bear the legend “H. Stone Pinxit, T. Cross sculpsit”. Henry Stone (b. 1616) was not in the first rank of British portrait-painters, and no such painted portrait of Moore is known to survive. Thomas Cross (active 1644-82) has been described as “a prolific but only moderately competent workman … [with] a habit of repeating standard motifs”. This second state of the plate includes two bookshelves similar to those that appear in several other Cross frontispieces, whereas in the first state this background area is blank. The round objects on the table were probably intended to be understood as mirrors (not as globes), an author’s books conventionally being described as “the Mirrour of his minde”. Hence these are the mirror of arithmetic and mirror of geometry.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?
Moore’s 1650 Arithmetick is quite a substantial volume, which could genuinely help a reader to improve their knowledge of the subject. But the frontispiece image highlights how the volume was also a piece of advertising demonstrating the competence and skills of its author. In the Preface he also took the opportunity to boast that he had books in hand on a number of other mathematical subjects, if he received sufficient encouragement to publish them. Most of these never in fact materialised, though he did go on to publish some later books: the second edition Arithmetick (1660), A Mathematical Compendium (edited by Nicholas Stephenson, 1674 and later editions) and posthumously A New Systeme of the Mathematicks (1681). In the last few years of his life he played a leading role in the founding of the new Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and sponsored engravings of the new institution drawn by Robert Thacker and engraved by Francis Place.

There will be a meeting to remember Frances on Tuesday 26 June, from 3 – 5:30, at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Free School Lane, Cambridge. Please sign up here, if you are interested: https://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/news-events/remembering-frances-willmoth.

An Image Interview with Ian Lawson

HookeRS_466
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.

Learning to see

By Sietske Fransen

Drawing of a cross-section of a worm, by Sietske
Drawing of a cross-section of a worm, by Sietske

At the age of 18 I started my undergraduate degree. I had wanted to become a gynaecologist for many years and had therefore signed up to study Medicine at the University of Nijmegen (in the Netherlands). However, about six months before the end of high school, I realised I was more interested in how things work inside bodies, and why people get ill, than in how to deal with diseases at the patient’s end. So, I changed my course to Biology at Utrecht University, to learn all about the workings of living organisms.

Drawing of a locust, by Sietske
Drawing of a locust, by Sietske

At the time, the first year of Biology was build up from the smallest to the largest systems, meaning that we started with Organic Chemistry in September and ended with Ecology at the end of our first year. And over the last four months of year one, we also had the courses Zoology I & II. In my memory (I might be wrong…) this included “practica” on every afternoon from Tuesday till Friday.

The main thing we did during those practical hours was looking at organisms and their anatomies, with the naked eye and the microscope. Dissecting all types of small animals (from lugworms to rats) was extremely informative, however, most of the specimens would come on pre-prepared microscope slides. Looking at these slides we could observe all the different types of tissues and cells in the different organisms of the animal kingdom. In other parts of our course we would be reading or hearing about them, but actually seeing things ourselves was a very important part of our education.

Drawing of a squid, by Sietske
Drawing of a squid, by Sietske

At the time, the ordeal felt like a critique of my drawing skills, but I now understand that I was not taught to draw (nor expected to draw well), but rather educated to observe and see. To be able to distinguish the different organs in a worm, a squid, and a locust, is one thing. However, the process of distinguishing different cell types under a microscope, is quite another. Hence, our long afternoons of dissecting, microscopy and drawing, were all about learning to see.

Malpighian corpuscles, drawn by Sietske
Malpighian corpuscles, drawn by Sietske

This has become all the more apparent to me since I started working on the Making Visible project. I have begun to admire even more the men who started using microscopes and telescopes in the seventeenth century and described what they saw. The things they saw through these devices had never been seen before by them or any previous philosopher. No text book would help them in the right direction, for them no lecturer who spoke about that exact object that same morning. This makes it all the more surprising then to find their names in modern biology books, such as the renal or Malpighian corpuscle (a part of the kidney), which, three hundred years after Malpighi’s first observation, I still had to draw at university.

With this blog post I am not getting to any answers or spectacular new observations, but rather to formulating questions which I would like investigate during the coming years of our project. I am wondering whether the seventeenth-century anatomists and microscopists were educated in drawing. Were those who took a medical degree at university or those Fellows of the Royal Society who could be described as ‘amateurs’, ‘liefhebbers’, or gentlemen, taught how to draw specimens? And did they need these artistic skills, or did they rather need an education in seeing and observing? And maybe the two are joined exercises?

Sperm drawn by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Letter to the Royal Society, 31 May 1678, EL/L1/36
Sperm drawn by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Letter to the Royal Society, 31 May 1678, EL/L1/36

Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723), the Dutch microscopist and most prolific correspondent of the early Royal Society, did not go to university and specifically stated in his first letter to the Royal Society that he is not a draughtsman himself and that he therefore hired skilled people to draw his observations. However, some of his own drawings, such as this drawing of male sperm, do not come across as bad drawings, and in fact seem to demonstrate a certain degree of skill. Therefore, I am curious to understand more about the seventeenth-century notion of the skilled draughtsman. Also these draughtsmen had never seen the specimens under the microscope, but they were, at least according to Van Leeuwenhoek, better skilled in drawing. So what is the relation between observation and the registration of these observations, and how was a seventeenth-century “scientist” educated and prepared to do both?

By looking at Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, as well as Regnier de Graaf (1641-1673) and Jan Swammerdam (1637-1680), two other Dutch microscopists who corresponded with the Fellows of the Royal Society, I will investigate their skills in observation and drawing, and the way in which they report about their own skills in their letters. Hopefully this investigation will give us a better sense of the education Dutch anatomists and microscopists received in terms of drawing skills, and also which skills of observation they expected from their readers.