Portraits and furnishings

Might anyone know of a recent study on the portraits and furnishing of the RS, or in other contemporary or similar institutions?

From archival records, we know that Fellows of the Royal Society frequently gave portraits to the Society, either of themselves, of past Fellows or of other figures (e.g. William Harvey, Thomas Hobbes); widows of Fellows (e.g. Mrs Evelyn) presented portraits of their husbands; visiting dignitaries presented their own portraits; several of which were hung up in the Meeting Room; smaller drawings and prints of Fellows’ portraits were kept together, either in the Library or in the Repository. Such portraits were important in the eyes of the Fellows of the Society, as they helped to memorialise its distinguished Fellows and their achievements – a collection of individual portraits formed part of the genealogy and identity of a collective institution (perhaps in parallel to the writing of the history of their own Society). The Society was also well aware that memory could fade. In 1691, John Mapletoft (1631-1721) was asked to provide a suitable encomium to the portraits hung in the meeting room of the Society.

At present, it is unclear if there were any hierarchies or orders expressed in the location and hanging of such portraits, and how they might have related, if at all, to other objects such as a globe by Joseph Moxon or a barometer designed by Robert Hooke that furnished the Meeting Room. The symbolic and practical functions of the furnishings and the setting of the room where the meetings took place would further add to our understanding of the settings in which the Fellows presented themselves, sometimes to visitors.

Stephen Johnson says that the Ashmolean Museum certainly had a sense of hierarchy in its furnishings.

The following provide provenance of surviving portraits in the RS:

Hammill, Gillian. 1969. The Society’s portraits and busts. Notes and Records of the Royal Society 24 (1):156-68;

Robinson, Norman H., and Eric G. Forbes. 1980. The Royal Society catalogue of portraits. London: The Society.

The following provides a description of the portraits hung in the middle of the 18th century.

‘A List of Original Pictures at the Royal Society House. Communicated by a Connoisseur’, Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 38 (1768), pp. 62-3.

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2 Responses to Portraits and furnishings

  1. minervabird says:

    I wonder if the development of a hierarchy or order in the location and hanging of the portraits was a late seventeenth/early-eighteenth century phenomenon. In the case of the Royal College of Physicians, in 1596 the College simply announced that any member or ‘noble person’ could display his portrait or coat of arms on payment of £10. After the early portraits housed at Amen Corner were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666 (with the exception of a portrait of Harvey), there seemed to be a more deliberate effort at building a collection in the 18th century. Perhaps a comparison between the two institutions would be fruitful. There is a work edited by Gordon Wolstenholme (1964) on the portrait collection, showing that many of the early portraits were painted by women artists.

  2. sk111 says:

    Thank you for this helpful suggestion. Clearly gifting portraits was already a custom by the time Fellows of the Royal Society started doing it. Portrait collections go back at least to the Renaissance; and scholars and patrons gave medals or prints of themselves to their peers and favoured clients. Portraits were of course part of museum collections and libraries. So there must have been various sources (including private houses and court) which the RS could draw on for their model or template; the challenge would be to find sufficient primary source evidence (we have a few visitor’s reports) that provide detail.

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