Portraits have a peculiar fascination for people. As Lisa Jardine has pointed out, historical figures come to life so much more vividly when a portrait is available. This is true for historians almost as much as anyone else. Therefore the thought that there might be a lost or unidentified portrait of a famous and controversial figure like Robert Hooke is extremely tantalising. It also grips the public imagination – several visitors to the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary exhibition in summer 2010 commented, ‘they say Newton destroyed a portrait of Hooke’. Indeed, ‘they’ do say this. The final scene in the 2009 Royal Shakespeare Company production ‘The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes’ showed Newton slashing a portrait, a reference that shows how familiar this story has become. Indeed it has all the elements of good drama – passion, the fierce rivalry of two misunderstood geniuses, and violence (well, vandalism at least).
So the question is, did Newton do it? He seems to have had both motive and opportunity. His relations with Hooke had turned sour in 1686 following controversy over Hooke’s contributions to Newton’s theory of gravity. After Hooke’s death in 1703 Newton was elected President of the Royal Society (‘they’ also say he waited until Hooke had died before becoming more active in the Society). Newton oversaw the Society’s move to a new premises in Crane Court, and it is assumed that the portrait went missing during the upheaval accompanying this move. Finally, Newton was a ruthless and overbearing character who held grudges – or so they say.
But before we pronounce Newton guilty of destroying Royal Society property, we need to consider the fundamental question of whether a portrait of Hooke existed in the first place. None of the evidence on this point is really conclusive. There are two sources for the notion that there was a portrait. The first comes from Hooke’s diary, in which he recorded his daily life in some detail for long periods from the 1670s to 1690s. In an entry for 16 October 1674 he wrote ‘At Garaways. Left off taking tobacco — Mr Bonust drew picture.’ Garaways was a coffee-house much visited by Hooke, but ‘Mr Bonust’ is a rather mysterious figure who only appears once in the diary. The first editors of the diary suggested that this was one ‘Bownest’, whose portrait of ejected minister Arthur Jackson is housed in the National Portrait Gallery in the form of an engraving by David Loggan. Hooke was interested in art, and visited various painters, including Mary Beale, who painted his friend and colleague Robert Boyle, and the miniaturist Mary Moore, mother of Hooke’s friend Richard Waller (himself an accomplished artist). However if Mr Bownest did draw Hooke’s picture in 1674, this is the only reference Hooke made to it.
The second piece of evidence is a description of a visit to the Royal Society’s premises in 1710 by a German traveller, Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach. Like many other scientifically-minded travellers of the day, von Uffenbach was keen to see the famous Royal Society – but the reality was a severe disappointment for him. After being shown the Repository and meeting rooms at Gresham College, he wrote dismissively in his travel-journal,
the finest instruments and other articles [lie] . . . not only in no sort of order or tidiness but covered with dust, filth and coal-smoke, and many of them broken and utterly ruined. If one inquires after anything, the operator who shows strangers round . . . will usually say: ‘A rogue had it stolen away’, or he will show you pieces of it, saying: ‘It is corrupted or broken’; and such is the care they take of things! . . . Finally we were shown the room where the Society usually meets. It is very small and wretched and the best things there are the portraits of its members, of which the most noteworthy are those of Boyle and Hoock.
Von Uffenbach, a foreign visitor briefly shown the Society’s meeting room, is the only person to make such a reference to Hooke’s portrait. James Yonge, who visited the Society in November 1702 and was elected FRS at the time, recorded seeing ‘divers original pictures’ in the Council Room. He listed eleven portraits, including those of Robert Boyle and Theodore Haak, but Hooke’s was not among them. It seems unlikely that Yonge would have overlooked Hooke’s picture if it was there. Hooke was Yonge’s first contact at the Society: the two men had corresponded for many years and Yonge referred to Hooke in his journal as ‘my old friend’.
Other sources in which we might expect to find a mention of Hooke’s portrait are curiously silent on the subject. The inventory of Hooke’s possessions after his death does not include a portrait. Richard Waller, who wrote the first biography of Hooke in the preface to his edition of Hooke’s papers, printed two years after Hooke’s death, never mentioned a portrait. Neither did Hooke’s second posthumous editor, William Derham. It was standard practice at the time to include an engraved portrait of the author at the front of such an edition of the collected works of a major philosopher, and yet neither of these publications contains one, suggesting there was no original from which to produce an engraving. And if a portrait did exist, there is no evidence that it was given to the Royal Society. The minutes of the Society’s meetings, in which gifts such as portraits were often (but not always!) recorded, say nothing about a portrait of Hooke, and neither do any other lists of donations in the period. Hooke himself, who was very protective of his scientific reputation and prestige, never spoke of donating his own portrait to the Society.
The absence of any corroborating evidence must cast some doubt on von Uffenbach’s claim to have seen a portrait of Hooke at Gresham College in 1710. Was he shown Theodore Haak’s portrait and misheard the name? Hooke was the more famous Fellow and von Uffenbach may have assumed the Society had his portrait. I think we can say that although Hooke may have had his picture taken, it is unlikely to have been hanging in the Society’s meeting room at Gresham College. And Newton? He’s definitely off the hook.
This is a slightly revised version of a post first published on the Royal Society’s Repository blog.