I expect all historians can think of one or two moments in history they would really like to have seen for themselves (often, it must be said, from a safe distance). As a great fan of the early Royal Society, I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to attend one of the Society’s weekly meetings in the 17th century. Judging from the minutes of the meetings, the conversation could range over almost any topic imaginable, and there was always the possibility of a monster of some kind being brought in to liven up the proceedings. This is all by way of introduction to a passage in the minutes recording a conversation that took place on 28 November 1678 about how to render a coal-mine safe to enter (and like so many aspects of Restoration life, I don’t advise trying this at home).
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).