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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The resorts of idle and disaffected persons

On Thursday 30 December 1675, a startling proclamation was printed in the London Gazette:

Whereas it is most apparent, That the Multitude of Coffee-houses of late Years set up and kept within this Kingdom . . . and the great resort of Idle and Disaffected persons to them, have produced very evil and dangerous Effects, as well for that many Tradesmen and others do therein mispend much of their time, which might and probably would otherwise be employed in and about their lawful Callings and Affairs; but also, for that in such Houses, and by occasion of the meetings of such Persons therein, divers false, malitious and scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majesties Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm; His Majesty hath thought it fit and necessary, That the said Coffee-houses be (for the future) Put down and Suppressed . . .
(read the whole proclamation on the London Gazette website)

There was a public uproar and he had to back down, but His Majesty Charles II did have a point. Anyone reading Hooke’s diary is under no illusions that a good deal of Hooke’s time that might otherwise have been spent doing who knows what, possibly one of his several lawful callings, was in fact employed in meeting friends at Garraway’s or Jonathan’s. Furthermore, every Restoration Londoner knew that the coffee-house was the place to go for false, malicious and scandalous reports (second only to the palace of Whitehall for really juicy gossip). Hooke probably didn’t go specifically for the scandal, although occasionally he ran across scandal in the course of a visit. He went to meet friends, talk to people, and read the latest news from home and abroad. Of course, the main topic of conversation on 30 December 1675 was the royal proclamation.

You could run into just about anyone at a coffee-house, from shoe-makers to courtiers. Hooke’s friends and associates had their own particular haunts – Hooke often visited Man’s with Sir Christopher Wren, and select Fellows of the Royal Society regularly adjourned to the Crown Tavern in Threadneedle Street after meetings. In the 1670s Hooke’s favored establishment was Garraway’s in Exchange Alley, run by Thomas Garraway; in the 1680s and 1690s he preferred Jonathan’s, kept by Jonathan Miles, again in Exchange Alley. Hooke sometimes visited Jonathan’s three times in a day, and usually met some of his particular friends there. He recorded such visits in a truncated fashion in his diary. Part of an entry for Thursday 17 January 1689 reads:

. . . at Jon Gof Lod Sp Wal: Hayn. Mev. Cur. Pag. of flood. Atlantis &c . . .
meaning ‘at Jonathans. [met] Godfrey, Lodwick, Spencer, Waller, Hains, Meverell, Currer, Paggin. [talk] of flood. Atlantis, &c’. The listing of names became almost compulsive for Hooke in the later part of his diary – this is a typical entry. On this occasion the talk turned to the Biblical flood and its consequences, something Hooke was particularly interested in at this time as part of his theorising about the history and formation of the earth. On other visits Hooke was more interested in reading the latest news printed in the London Gazette, or papers from Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Paris. It was at Jonathan’s that Hooke first learnt of the death of Queen Christina of Sweden (he noted this on Monday 18 March 1689, and again on Thursday 9 May, when the Paris Gazette apparently ran an obituary of the prominent monarch). Happenings closer to home were also discussed, including London mayoral elections and military affairs in Scotland and Ireland.

Just one contemporary drawing of the interior of a seventeenth-century coffee-house exists, now in the British Museum collections. (view it here) It’s just a watercolour sketch, but it gives a good impression of the tobacco pipes, coffee and conversation on offer – a convivial place to spend an evening with Hooke and his friends.

The lives of others

Robert Hooke FRS started writing his ‘Memoranda’, as he called his daily entries, on 10 March 1672. There’s no clear statement about why he started this project, just the terse entry ‘Memoranda begun’, followed by some characteristically abrupt notes about the weather and so on. It’s worth reproducing the whole of his first entry here:

Sun. 10 [mercury] fell from 170 to 185. most part of ye Day cleer but cold & somewhat windy at the South. [I was this morning better with my cold then I had been 3 months before] [moon] apogeum. It grew cloudy about 4. [mercury] falling still.

I told Cox how to make Reflex glasses by Silver and hinted to him making them by printing. Hewet brought me £10 from Brother John Hooke. News of 3 empty Dutch ships taken by ye montacu frigat

Despite Hooke’s lack of explanation about his motivation, I think this entry is revealing. His weather notes and barometric readings  were part of a long-running project to investigate the weather with a view to predicting it in advance. He kept these records as part of his memoranda for over a year, but then stopped (maybe he started recording them elsewhere). At the same time, his first entry signals other reasons for keeping a record of his activities. He noted a conversation with Christopher Cox, a scientific instrument maker; a financial transaction; and a piece of news. Throughout the diary these types of records come up again and again, and I think this is why he began with the word ‘memoranda’ – that is, things to remember. The diary is primarily a record of Hooke’s daily transactions during an incredibly busy period of his life, when he was surveying London building sites, designing instruments, doing experiments, lecturing, catching up on the news at coffeehouses, meeting friends, arguing with his maid, trying out new medicinal preparations, buying books, and occasionally getting paid for his work. It’s no wonder he felt that he needed some way to keep track of things.

This is emphatically not a diary written for others to read. It’s a raw account of everyday life in Restoration London, including the mundane and repetitive. It’s often incomprehensible unless you have some idea of what’s going on – who Hooke is meeting and why. I’ve embarked on the project of re-editing it primarily because I want more people to be able to read and understand it so they can get to know Hooke and his world for themselves. I don’t have all the answers yet by any means, but this blog will be a way of sharing my adventures in Hooke’s London (and maybe getting some advice from readers who know more than me about various things!).