The frontispiece to Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667)

 – By Prof. Michael Hunter

Click for image

I am currently trying to write a definitive account of this print, perhaps the most famous image associated with Restoration science.[1]

As I showed many years ago, though published in Sprat’s book, it was initially intended for a different book written by the Somerset virtuoso, John Beale.[2]

Beale’s letters on the subject provide various rough ideas for potential components of the design, including Charles II, Francis Bacon in his chancellor’s robes, and pillars echoing the engraved title-pages of Bacon’s works.

It was John Evelyn (perhaps helped by Wenceslaus Hollar, and by his Royal Society colleagues) who turned these into a meaningful and pictorially satisfying artefact. This involved a deliberate act of artistic composition, with strong characterisation, self-conscious use of perspective, architectural form, symbolism, etc., and this process needs to be properly understood.

In addition, certain details that were included were clearly seen as crucial and these need to be meticulously itemised, especially the plethora of scientific instruments and the carefully-titled books.

There are also issues concerning the distribution of the image. It appears in some copies of Sprat’s History but not in others, while no less than three copies now in print collections are on tissue-thin paper.

I’m currently writing all this up, and would be glad to discuss the issues involved with anyone interested in them.

Professor Michael Hunter, Exmouth House, Exmouth   Place, Hastings, East Sussex, TN34 3JA; m.hunter@bbk.ac.uk.


[1] For an online version, see http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/  accessing the database through the bpi number 1385.

[2] Michael Hunter, Science and Society in Restoration England (Cambridge, 1981), pp. 194-7.

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One Response to The frontispiece to Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667)

  1. Janet says:

    That’s an inventive answer to an initersteng question

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