Hooke, Newton and the ‘missing’ portrait

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).

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A week in the life of Robert Hooke: Sunday 16th to Saturday 22nd March 1673

Hooke’s London was experiencing typical spring weather in mid-March 1673: that is to say, a mixture of sun, rain, wind, and clear skies (but no snow, unlike mid-March 2013). Hooke’s weather record for 18 March gives a good feel for this: ‘cleer for ye most part all day but some flying great clouds sometimes intercepted ye Sun’. Despite the generally good weather, Hooke wasn’t feeling entirely well, suffering from feverish symptoms. He felt ‘Guiddy’ on the 18th, for which he took Elixir proprietatis (a well-known medicine made of aloes, myrrh and saffron that was apparently still in use in the 20th century!). On the 19th he ‘went shivering and hazy like an ague to bed burnd about 2 [am?] & sweat much after’. From his diary entry it sounds as though this had resulted from taking Dulwich water (ie. mineral-water from Dulwich), and a ‘spoonful of Andrews’ (possibly spirit of angelica) – but he may have taken these because he was already feeling ill. It’s difficult to say whether cutting his hair ‘short wth scizzers’ was a response to feeling feverish, or just routine maintenance – possibly the latter, given that he’d sent his periwig ‘to be curled’ the previous day. If you look at the portraits of some of Hooke’s Royal Society colleagues (Robert Boyle, for example) you’ll see how luxuriously curly their periwigs were.

The changeable weather and a slight indisposition didn’t slow Hooke down, and he recorded a busy week of work (with, of course, some visits to Garraway’s coffee house). In terms of official work for the City, he visited the Guildhall ‘commissioners’ on the 17th (possibly the Commissioners for Sewers?); produced a certificate for ‘Mr Calmedy’ (the results of his survey of a ground plot); and took a ‘view’ (that is, made a survey) in Queenstreet. The entry for 22nd March is intriguing: ‘at Guildhall wth townclark Gresham Writings Burnt’. Were these ‘Writings’ the records of Sir Thomas Gresham’s legacy? I’m not quite sure why Hooke would have been interested in this, except that about this time planning had begun for the Royal Society’s return to Gresham College, its original meeting-place. Since the Great Fire in 1666 the Society had been meeting at Arundel House on the Strand, so that Gresham College could be used as a temporary Royal Exchange. Could there have been some question as to whether the Royal Society should be allowed back? The only other evidence from Hooke’s diary comes a month later, in an entry for 23 April:
at Guildhall searcht ye Hustings book for Sr Th Greshams house. found he purchasd 2 houses in Broad Street. An[no] 10 Elizabethæ. & one in Bishopsgate Street. An[no] 3o Elizab[ethae] Quere
It’s not clear why Hooke looking into the affairs of Thomas Gresham, but another possibility is that it was linked with some work going on at or near Gresham College at this time. The entry for 18 March says that an unnamed ‘cornchandler broke downe part of Gresham Coll wall. promised inclosing house of office, and yard. made a chimny out of ye Room equall to my Repository’. This is a bit mysterious but perhaps had something to do with a neighbouring property. The ‘house of office’ was a common euphemism for the privy. I guess the room ‘equal to’ the Repository meant the room opposite or next to the Royal Society’s Repository (collection of museum artefacts).

Hooke’s scientific work this week involved a couple of experiments, a meeting of the Royal Society at Arundel House on Wednesday, and some manual work constructing scientific apparatus. The ‘experiment of burning’ had been ongoing since mid-February. The minutes of the Royal Society meeting on 19 February recorded a failed experiment ‘to find, whether the Air increases or decreases by burning’, and according to the minutes Hooke’s apparatus apparently let him down again on 5 March. Hooke himself was convinced that the air decreased with burning and read a lecture to the Society presenting these results on 19 March. Having successfully settled that question, he moved on to an experiment about ‘the penetration of spirit of Vitrioll & water’. Again, the Fellows were curious about whether the mixture of ‘Oyle of Vitriol’ (ie. sulphuric acid) and water would result in a larger or smaller volume than that of the separate liquids. (You’ll have to wait until next week for the results!) The Royal Society also received Dutch microscopist and biologist Jan Swammerdam’s ‘cutts of a frogs Lungs’ – that is, drawings of dissected lungs. They are still in the Society’s archive (along with Swammerdam’s drawing of a cute little rhinoceros beetle).

Drawing of frogs' lungs by Jan Swammerdam, 1673. Copyright The Royal Society.

Drawing of frogs’ lungs by Jan Swammerdam, 1673. Copyright The Royal Society.

Hooke seemingly also spent some time this week working on his ‘arithmetick engine’ or calculating machine. Gottfried Leibnitz FRS had shown such a device to the Royal Society earlier in the year, and Sir Samuel Morland FRS had also produced a working model (Hooke’s judgement? ‘very silly’). Hooke’s engine, of course, was intended to be more elegant and yet more powerful than either of these previous examples. It seems likely that the lathe he bought this week, and the ‘Engin for cutting wheels’ he borrowed from a Mr Bell, were connected with this project. On the 20th Hooke recorded that ‘Mr Stanton shewd me his module of Arithmetick engine’. This was presumably the model of Hooke’s design that he had requested from Stanton earlier in the month.

It was also a good week for books. Hooke borrowed the ‘Description of Ceylon’ from Mr Chamberlaine, which was possibly a Dutch work by Philippus Baldaeus. He also noted that he had seen a German book ‘of mineralls’ that belonged to Henry Oldenburg, the Royal Society’s secretary. He did make one purchase, a fascinating and very beautiful book called An embassy from the East-India Company of the United Provinces, to the Grand Tartar Cham Emperor of China (London, 1673), which he bought for twelve shillings. This was a translation by John Ogilby of a Dutch volume. I haven’t seen the Dutch edition, but the English translation was illustrated with lovely engravings showing details of Chinese life. You can see a digital version of the book here.

That’s all for this week – if you have any questions let me know and I’ll do my best to clarify.

And if you want to find out more, you might be interested in the following:
For more on 17th century medicines see this very interesting article about a medicine chest presented to a young Scottish nobleman by the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

For the minutes of the Royal Society meetings at this period see Thomas Birch’s The History of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge (London, 1756) – free online via Google Books.

To find out more about Hooke’s surveying activities, I recommend Michael Cooper’s ‘A More Beautiful City’: Robert Hooke and the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (2003).