Carlton House Terrace attracts many interesting people. A couple of weeks ago the French sculptor and mixed media artist Hubert Duprat was in town and came to soak up the Royal Society’s atmosphere. Despite shocking incompetence in our respective tongues we still managed to hold up a lively conversation on subjects as diverse as knapped flints, geodes and caddis fly life cycles, the stock-in-trade of Duprat’s quite brilliant art. A little thing like language never stops a science enthusiast.
It may strike us as a bit strange to discover artists who are fascinated by science, but it really shouldn’t. The relationship has history and the late 18th and early 19th centuries were heydays of disciplinary cross-fertilisation. Then, a sculptor like Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) might easily become a Fellow of the Royal Society (and did). His great contemporary, the portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) was also elected. Visitors to the recent and very fine Lawrence retrospective at London’s National Gallery might assume that this was entirely because of Lawrence’s flattery of the rich and powerful – “poetic likenesses where every excellence is heightened” according to his Royal Society obituary. But that isn’t the whole story. Lawrence might draw the chemist William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) but he also lent his draughtsmanship to Wollaston’s scientific paper, “On the apparent direction of eyes in a portrait” in 1824 and his drawings are preserved in the Society’s archives.
Lawrence was not the only leading artist of the period whose work appears in the guise of scientific illustration. There are many examples of “hidden” portraiture in our collections, quite the equal of the oil paintings on the Society’s walls. One which is reproduced from time to time on the web, and usually for the wrong reasons, is a portrait of the “two-headed boy of Bengal”, whose deformity led him to be exhibited, in life and in death, during the 1780s. Neither the boy’s name, nor that of the artist, is usually given in articles about the case. The artist’s name we do know: Arthur William Devis (1762-1822) became a significant society portrait-painter and a rival to Lawrence. He produced a remarkably sensitive study of the Indian child (copied into the Philosophical Transactions by William Clift), giving him a face, and individuality, if not a name. Small wonder that Devis would make his later reputation with paintings of the fortunate children of the English aristocracy.
Back to the present and on Sunday, I took part in a contemporary art event, “Manual Setting”, at the Danielle Arnaud Gallery on Kennington Road. Here, contemporary artists brought out their notebooks and I described some scientific equivalents. There is a great sense of discovery when first opening the pages of a notebook: each manuscript was put together for a scientific purpose, as a laboratory record or as a personal diary of ideas. But often, the scientific content can be pleasing in a way that is aesthetic as well as intellectual. I’ve selected a few specimens of “found” works of art by scientific researchers, which I find rather beautiful. Can you tell what they are yet? Answers in my next blog-post.
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Hubert Duprat’s caddis fly work is discussed here; details of “Manual Setting” events may be found at daniellearnaud.com; and the exhibition Thomas Lawrence: Regency power and brilliance can be found on the National Gallery of London’s website.