Sketching ‘Curiously Drawn’ for BSHS Viewpoint

I had a wonderful time at the ‘Curiously Drawn’ conference at the Royal Society, which dealt with an aspect of the history of science and technology with which I’ve only engaged occasionally in the course of my own mainly socio-economic, early modern research – and without the same specialist visual knowledge and expertise as would have an art historian. I’ve also dealt more often with the visual language of advertising than with images stemming from observations and experimentation. The conference organisers have kindly allowed me to write the report on the event for the Viewpoint magazine of the British Society for the History of Science. I would appreciate it if other attendees would let me know if they think that I’ve missed, or misunderstood, anything of import! The report needs to remain close to 600 words in length, and to be geared to a more general audience, which makes it difficult to fully capture the details of such a rich conference:

The current premises of the Royal Society, all imposing marble and gilt, were a natural as well as a luxurious home for the conference ‘Curiously Drawn’. The event was organised by members of an AHRC-funded international network studying ‘Origins of science as a visual pursuit: the case of the early Royal Society’. The conference delegates, numbering more than 70 and hailing from a variety of countries, were also able to see a number of the original images and specimens referenced by the speakers thanks to an exhibition largely drawn from the Society’s archives.

Paula Findlen of Stanford University opened the conference by showing how the worlds of art and science might intersect to prompt greater realism in early scientific imagery. She described how Agostino Scilla employed unusually realistic depictions of fossils to help argue that these specimens were the remains of animals rather than having supernatural origins. Some naturalists considered it a positive and some a negative that for Scilla, who was trained as a painter, images spoke more eloquently than did words.

Later, Urs Leu of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich described how the Swiss geologist Johann Jacob Scheuchzer presented fossils in a similar manner to Scilla. However, Scheuchzer would sometimes emphasize certain elements to further the argument that fossils were recognizably the remains of living organisms and sometimes used them to frame Biblical scenes since he, like many naturalists of the time, thought them transported by the deluge. The role of religion in scientific imagery was a recurrent theme during the conference, as with the fascinating talk provided by Scott Mandelbrote of the University of Cambridge on the images for Thomas Burnett’s Sacred Theory of the Earth.

Another theme was previous neglect of the artistic influences upon the thoughts and actions of individuals associated with science. Kim Sloan of the British Museum described a project to reconnect and to analyse Hans Sloane’s thousands of drawings, paintings and prints in light of his artistic as well as scientific connoisseurship. Similarly, other speakers elaborated on the diverse backgrounds of and influences upon the artists who produced scientific images, including Domenico Bertoloni-Meli of Indiana University with respect to the makers of anatomical images, and Nathan Flis of Oxford University with respect to the nature painter Francis Barlow.

The final two speakers of the conference, Lorraine Daston and Matthew Hunter, sought to expand common definitions of scientific imagery and of the scientific creation of art respectively. Daston, of the Max-Planck Institute in Berlin, reminded the audience that means of visualising data such as charts and tables were also important scientific images – being ‘hybrids of the visible and the legible’. Matthew Hunter of McGill University brought the lectures to a dramatic close by shrouding the room in darkness before revealing Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting The Alchemist. He made a similarly dramatic proposal that Joshua Reynolds engaged in a nearly alchemical science by experimenting with different industrial materials and chemical combinations in his paintings, often to deleterious effect.

During the lengthy and engaged conference discussion, common themes included a desire to know more about the backgrounds and activities of the artists, printers and publishers involved in producing these images and also about the identity and opinions of their intended audiences. A number of delegates emphasized that historians should not lose sight of the full context of images from their true size to the nature of the surrounding text, and that visuality extends to three-dimensional models and specimens. The delegates widely agreed that ‘Curiously Drawn’ had proved a great success, and many expressed hope that in the future, more art historians will contribute to the conversation over scientific visuals.

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