The curiously drawn line on which Art meets Science

Curiously Drawn: Early Modern Science as a Visual Pursuit gave us a stimulating and thought-provoking two days. Many ideas and questions came out of it for me, but the one to which I kept returning was the question of disciplinary boundaries. Do historians of science really use images sensitively? Do historians of art approach the scientific knowledge presented in their images with sufficient rigour? Are we naïve to cross into another discipline without the necessary tools and training? These were questions that surfaced throughout the two days and, as an art historian who has joined the history of science community, particularly struck me.

The conference opened with a call to arms on this head. Paula Findlen started by describing herself as one of those ‘historians of science who accidentally start working on the history of art.’ She commented on how figures such as Agostino Scilla, on whom her paper focused, can fall between the stools on which sit history of art and history of science. Scilla is studied almost exclusively as a natural history collector within the history of science, despite the majority of his surviving material consisting of drawings that would form a perfect history of art corpus. Kim Sloan’s paper made a similar point about her subject Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum. Due to the separation of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum, Sloane has not been considered as an art collector, despite his important collection of prints, drawings and paintings. Because of these divisions, funding has had to be sought for PhD researchers to re-connect Sloane’s dispersed collections. I am excited to see how the Reconstructing Sloane project progresses.

This sad tale of division and disciplinary neglect was dissipated for us, I found, by the two papers which ended the conference. Both speakers gave us new and exciting ways to look at images, using the tools of history of science. Lorraine Daston’s paper on the tables used to record weather observations in early Royal Society papers, reminded us that images are myriad and various in type, and that the systems of reference to which historians of science have become so accustomed in the work of Bruno Latour, also extend into images. Tables seemed to me the perfect example of this interaction. Matthew Hunter’s stimulating paper looked at the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds against the background of Royal Society experiments, to think about Reynolds’ use of pigments. I felt that his approach of telling two conflicting stories about Reynolds’ abilities in pigment use, through the archives of the Royal Society, gave us an interesting method to approach the line between art and science.

Jose Ramon Marcaida struck the nail on the head, for me, in the closing discussion when he questioned whether as historians of science we sometimes view images as ‘true’ too easily, when we have built our discipline around questioning the truth of science. All historians (not just those who study science), I think, still face the danger of using images largely illustratively in their work, rather than with the analytical concentration with which we approach texts. Kim Sloan commented how few ‘pure’ art historians were present at the conference. Curiously Drawn, however, showed us ways in which to cross the line between art and science, taking our different disciplinary skills with us to use in interesting ways. This is, I suggest, one way in which the Origins of Science project might move forward to think about how we can bring these skills together.

Katy Barrett, PhD Student, Board of Longitude

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1 Response to The curiously drawn line on which Art meets Science

  1. Interesting post..

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