Research questions

Today, science is supremely visual. Indeed, it is an essential part of the modern scientific endeavour to make visible the structures and processes in nature that are normally invisible to the human eye. Recent historical research by Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison (Objectivity, 2007) highlighted  how visual resources simultaneously reflected and impacted on science, and the results of Daston’s ‘Observation’ project (Max-Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin), just published (ed. with E. Lubeck, Histories of Scientific Observation, 2011), are a good indication of how scholars from various backgrounds are now becoming interested in the visual practices of knowledge-making. This network will contribute to the increasing scholarly interest in visuality in science by focusing on the early Royal Society. The Royal Society is an important case study because it was a collective body dedicated to investigating nature, and was known for a variety of pictorial practices: its journal, Philosophical Transactions regularly included illustrations; it supported various illustrated publications (e.g. Francis Willughby’s Historia piscium); and a wealth of pictorial material has survived in the Society’s archives and elsewhere. Many of its Fellows were in turn also connoisseurs of art in a period when a rich culture of print was developing in England. The network will take into account the wider, artistic, aesthetic and visual contexts for the Fellows of the Royal Society.

This projects plans to bring together art historians and historians of science and hopes to address the following questions

  • How did images empower naturalists and natural philosophers to form innovative ideas and develop new practices?
  • Was there any evidence of collective “seeing/picturing” appropriate for the collaborative ideal of the Royal Society?
  • What was the process of publishing images (drawings, woodcuts, engravings), and what roles did authors, editors and artists play in the publication process of illustrated, scientific books?
  •  Did the interest in fine art and connoisseurship of some of the Fellows affect the way they drew or judged the validity of images produced for the Society?
  •  Is it possible to distinguish between ‘artistic’ and ‘scientific’ images?
  • What were the problems or limitations, if any, perceived by the Fellows, of using images in understanding nature?