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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