Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Science in Art

Featured string: Standing on the shoulders of giants: science in art

We don’t tend to memorialise scientists in art any more despite still producing great thinkers, any more than we really publicly memorialise military leaders in quite the same way; new statues rising in cities or atriums of public buildings tend to be either corporate art (usually abstract in nature), or publicly-commissioned art reflecting on a theme, such as unity or remembrance. The closest we come to straightforwardly representative sculptural art of any people is normally Anthony Gormley’s anonymous and unsettling humanoid bronzes. Political and even medical persons reflected in statue form tend to receive a certain amount of resistance when the idea is mooted–Mary Seacole being a noteworthy exception.

Public art celebrating individuals is still created, of course: in the form of murals and other street art: who we choose to celebrate, now, is often limited to musicians (a revolving selection of memorials to the late Amy Winehouse occupy areas of Camden Town), and local heroes, living and dead, of primarily political, rather than scientific nature. Again, exceptions can be found: unfortunately now removed, Sheffield once proudly displayed a mural of naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.

But once the art-commissioning parts of the world got excited about new discoveries in science just as they had with “new discoveries” of land… and newspapers reported on medical and scientific developments with the exact same mixture of derision and excitement that they always have, only with more art.

Here are some highlights from the string:

Bronze statue of Joseph Lister, unknown maker, 1870-1930

The Science: Inspired by Louis Pasteur’s work on what would later become known as microbiology, the Quaker & Essex boy Joseph Lister combined observations on the apparent safety of carbolic acid to larger lifeforms taken from farming environments with observations of its harm to microbes based on its use in exterminating the stench from sewage outflows (caused by bacteria in faeces), and chose the first surgical antiseptic.

Unlike his contemporaries (but like James Barry before him), Lister insisted on clean hands and fresh clothing when performing surgery, and went to lengths to ensure his equipment was clean and sterile. This dramatically improved the survival rate of patients undergoing surgery as they weren’t contracting as many post-surgical infections from the dirty blades, dirty hands, and dirty clothing of their surgeons. He did later abandon the use of carbolic acid sprays due to their minimal positive effect and irritation of the lungs and eyes not only of the patients but also those operating.

At the beginning of his career, Lister (working in Glasgow) was roundly mocked and condemned for his ideas, and criticised in the The Lancet, medicine’s premier English-language journal (not the first or the last time this august and venerable publication has been dead wrong). Although he did have some supporters at that time, it wasn’t really until the 1880s, well over 30 years into his career, that his ideas began to be accepted.

In addition to a fixation on hygiene that saved lives, Lister introduced catgut ligatures, sutures, and rubber drains; created a method of kneecap repair using wire, improved mastectomy (breast tissue removal) outcomes, and created an aortic tourniquet (the aorta is a high-pressure, high-volume blood vessel, and preventing it from disgorging blood all over the place is very important!). He also, after his retirement, advised surgeons to the recently-crowned Edward VII of the UK in hygienic practice, after the king was abruptly laid low with appendicitis.

Not a bad legacy!

The Art: As we might expect, the approximate dates for this statue are given for his established career onwards, rather than his contentious years in the 1850s & 60s, although as he was the Chair of Surgery at Glasgow Infirmary in the 1860s it’s entirely possible this statue was meant to celebrate that, much like an official portrait. Official portraits of highly-respected surgeons still line the staircase at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, for example, and are still added to.  Backing up this possibility is the presence of a similar, larger statue in Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow.

The commissioning of a statue to celebrate a Chair of Surgery seems a more sensible possibility than Lister setting out to have himself sculpted out of vanity, as might have been the case with 18th century pioneers of medicine–and certainly more likely than a Quaker whose primary focus was on improving medical outcomes having a predilection for self-aggrandisement outside of the strictly professional sphere.

The larger version in Kelvingrove was completed in the 1920s, revised downward from a museum dedicated to his instruments (as Lister had conducted his first carbolic experiments while at the Glasgow Infirmary) due to the costs inflicted on the city’s budgets by WW1. Neither the Kelvingrove Statue nor this smaller statue show much in the way of stylistic modernity, and this largely unobjectionable semi-classical style of statue makes it somewhat harder to date the design, but also renders it timeless.

Distinguished Men of Science, John Gilbert, Elizabeth Walker & Frederick John Skill, (1862)

The Science: Appearing in the above: Robert Brown, Edmund Cartwright, Benjamin Thompson, James Watt, Matthew Boulton, William Murdock, John Rennie, Samuel Bentham, Marc Isambard Brunel, Henry Maudsley, Joseph Huddart, William Symington, Patrick Miller, Thomas Telford, William Chapman, William Jessop, John Leslie, John Playfair, Daniel Rutherford, Richard Trevithick, William Congreve, William Allen, Francis Baily, Joseph Banks, Joseph Bramah, William Smith, Edward Troughton, Richard Watson, Henry Cavendish, Samuel Crompton, John Dalton, Bryan Donkin, Humphry Davy, Peter Dollond, William James Frodsham, Davies Gilbert, Charles Hatchett, William Henry, William Herschel, Edward Charles Howard, Edward Jenner, Henry Kater, Nevil Maskelyne, Alexander Nasmyth, Charles Stanhope, Charles Tennant, Thomas Thomson, William Hyde Wollaston, Thomas Young, Francis Ronalds.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go through them one by one. Vaccination innovators, botanists, engineers, chemists, physicists and pioneers of all sorts of sciences appear in the engraving–it’s a veritable who’s who of the Royal Society. The Royal Society, founded at the end of 1660, is over 450 years old and the oldest national scientific institution still operational in the world. So it was already a venerable tradition by the time this engraving was made, and while the members displayed are the cream of the 18th Century crop, it leaves off such luminaries as Newton and Hooke. Many of the fellows depicted also barely overlap at all in terms of their lifespans.

The Art: John Gilbert RA (that’s for the Royal Academy of Arts, distinct from the Royal Society of Sciences) specialised in this kind of stuff. However, as a man born in 1817, his period of overlap with many of the featured men was limited: for example, he was a little shy of three years old when Joseph Banks, the eminent explorer, botanist, and tool of colonialism popped his Aiden-Turner-alike clogs.  The work for this historic collective was presumably done from pre-existing portraits of the men involved.

While Gilbert masterminded the design, the execution was left up to draughtsmen  (or rather draughtsman and draughtswoman) Frederick John Skill and Elizabeth Walker, and the engraving (a tricky business involving corrosive chemicals) to William Walker and George Zobel. Engraving and drawing prints for publication was one area of the art business in which women (usually married and well-educated) flourished in the 19th century, and a careful observer of the print attributions in the collections both at the British Museum and at the Science Museum will see multiple women’s names appear repeatedly.

Much like the fine part prints available in museum gift shops and online, a work like this would have had commercial appeal, and could well be used as an incentive or gift of appreciation to donors to the Society, or have been used for sale by entrepreneurial types looking to capitalise on an increased public interest in science: the print was released some five years after the founding of the Science Museum in 1857, piquing public interest and drawing tourists as it continues to do to this day.

Chemical Lectures, Thomas Rowlandson, (c.1810)

The Science: This satirical print features a lecture on chemistry by the (at the time) young chemist Humphry Davy, a Cornishman who would go on to become famous for the invention of the Davy Lamp; tied to his homeland, the Davy Lamp was intended to lessen the risk of accidents from illumination in Cornwall’s mines, and lit the way–if you’ll excuse the pun–as part of a series of developments which eventually resulted in the electric light bulb. He also discovered the elemental forms of sodium and potassium, both vital to industry, as well as barium, boron, and calcium, all prior to this lecture.

Also attending is the German chemist Frierich Accum (identified by a book of his own work in his coat pocket), who was also extremely interested in the use of gas for lighting and, not long after this picture was made, became a board member at the Gas and Light Coke Company, for whom he had performed many experiments. His eagerness in this picture is therefore that of a fascinated fellow-professional, and perhaps an admirer, given Davy’s already-impressive roster of discoveries.

The lecture itself is taking place in the short-lived (it closed in 1823) Surrey Institution, which took as its model the longer-running and still extant Royal Institution, not to be confused with the Royal Society or the Royal Academy. Accum had in fact lectured at the Surrey Institution from the previous year, and Davy was a raging success at the Royal Institution (he did not lecture at the Surrey Institution), with Michael Faraday, electromagnetic wunderkind and polymath, as his assistant.

The Art: Reading this picture gives us an idea of how we’re supposed to feel about it. The visual language of satire hasn’t changed enormously enough in the last few hundred years that it’s impossible to tell at a glance who we’re meant to be rooting for. Although modern satirical cartoons often caricature every single participant in political or social activities as grotesques (regardless of how we might be expected to regard them: even the saintly come in for mocking over their features), in this period the conventionally-handsome, much as they are now in movies, are given to be the heroes of the piece.

Perhaps it’s possible that Accum’s somewhat unflattering appearance, and that of his neighbours, is intended to indicate their inferiority to the young and brilliant chemist giving the lecture? Perhaps, too, the satire would have been less unkind two years later, when Accum established himself as a useful member of the Gas and Light Coke Company’s board, rather than as a suspect foreign chemist viewed maybe as trying to steal the rightful glory of an English discoverer. It is doubtful that Davy himself felt that way.

Gentleman in his study, with scientific instruments, unattributed, (1745-55)

The Science: This gentleman is keen to be shown to be educated and rational: the background of his portrait shows a globe, an orrery (instrument for charting the the movement of the known planets in the solar system, and the moon, around the sun), and more than one microscope. By the 1740s, these instruments (mostly developed in the preceding century if not earlier) were accepted signifiers and tools of scientific inquiry. Membership to societies engaged in experiment and investigation in the 18th century was as respectable and desirable for a man of means as involvement in politics, law, and theology had been in the preceding two centuries, and in the following century business and engineering would join the sciences as acceptable areas of interest for a well-bred man. Any educated viewer of this portrait would therefore have a good idea of the kind of man the portrayed gentleman was, or at least wanted to show himself to be.

The Art: Reading a portrait for ideas about who a person was or what they were like is easier with older paintings, when people liked to have themselves shown with all their stuff (kind of like a modern #shelfie or spoof on MTV Cribs). Earlier examples show young men eager to be perceived as literature in the classics and classical art, such as Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man (1550-5), depicted reading with a classical torso peeking out from behind a cloth backdrop.

However, while I’ve suggested that the extremely well-dressed gentleman in the portrait (a velvet coat and a silk waistcoat indicating, as much as his expensive instruments and heavy tomes, that he’s a financial force to be reckoned with–or like the guy in the fake Rolex, wants to be thought of that way) is, to put it colloquially, possibly fronting… it’s also possible that he’s a scientist by trade. Although rarer, portraits of men (and sometimes women) who’d got rich in trade also existed before wholesale industrialisation made attaining that wealth more imaginable: consider Moroni’s Il Tagliapanni/The Tailor (1565-70) where a craftsman is portrayed not only with the source of his income but in the act of acquiring it.

Scientists in Art Now

Science is still represented in art, or the results of it are, rather more than scientists themselves. Mainstream media depictions have very much taken over from works of classical art, in which new discoveries are conveyed with the use of stock images which are often mocked by those actually involved in the field (rather than picture editors at newspapers). Use of stock photography & computer-generated image agencies has reduced the amount of drawn art used in conveying new scientific developments, and while we’re still possessed of celebrity scientists (think Brian Cox, or the late Patrick Moore), they’re rarely satirised in the context of their inventions or discoveries: perhaps we’ve simply grown numb to the overwhelming turnover of science news to the point where very few claims are shocking enough to satirise any more!

An exception to the rule is webcomics, created from passion and desire to educate, by artists like Zen Pencils and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal who depict both famous scientists of the past who they feel have not received sufficient attention, and generic scientists as characters illustrating relatable experiences working in the sciences and technological fields. Some scientists, also, are cartoonists & artists themselves, and depict the frustrations and successes of their lives online.

Outside of this media, scientific art’s main utility is still, as it has always been, within the bounds of the sciences themselves. Scientific illustration itself has an illustrious history taking in bestiaries, astronomical imagery, physics diagrams, and diagnostic/anatomical medical imagery, and would warrant an entire new article to talk about it to any appropriate extent.

Works of scientific art of the past have passed into art history and their use as design elements is now commonplace: particular favourites come from former Royal Society curator of experiments Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, William Hunter’s The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures, and Gray’s Anatomy, all groundbreaking works in their day–along with various depictions of the Wound Man, and the works of natural history illustrator Ernst Haeckel. In their use as design elements, works of scientific art in the past take on a new life as works of scientific art history and science history art (phew!) of the present–a privilege rarely afforded to their discoverers, who must content themselves instead with being household names.

[The full text of Micrographia is available, for free]

Related strings: Women in Science, Steamy Science: James Watt


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