I started working at the Royal Society in February, on a work placement as part of my Master’s degree at the University of Sussex. As I’m studying Art History and Museum Curating with Photography, my first project was to catalogue early photographs by Henri Victor Regnault (1810-1878) and John Stewart (1814-1887).

Regnault, primarily a chemist and professor of physics, took up photography in 1847 after studying Louis Blanquart-Evrard’s alterations to Fox Talbot’s calotype paper process. Initially recognising photography’s potential to assist with his scientific research, Regnault soon became more confident with the medium, and began to explore photography for enjoyment and aesthetic purposes.

Sir John Herschel introduced his brother-in-law John Stewart to Regnault, and the two men developed a strong friendship based on their shared appreciation for photography, going on excursions together in Kent to explore the medium further. Herschel added various photographs by Regnault and Stewart to his personal collection, and these were sent to the Royal Society along with Herschel’s papers in 1944.

It was really quite amazing to see and handle such a beautiful and little-known resource – Regnault was a private man and therefore few of his photographs were ever seen and exhibited. He used photography to capture rural working life, and to establish common ground with his new colleagues at the Sèvres Manufactory, where he was appointed director in 1852. He photographed working conditions in and around the factory, often using figures to give perspective and presence. Very little is known about Stewart, whose own photographic studies show serene landscapes in the Pyrenees.

The images I admire most are the photographs they worked on together. These show the imposing architecture of Peterborough Cathedral and Bodiam Castle, as well as closer studies carried out in the Kent village of Hawkhurst, near Bodiam, which include detailed observations of oaks, and the stripping and degrading powers of nature. Regnault and Stewart each had an interest in returning to a location to study and capture changes after time and nature had taken their course. They both used photography as a tool for comparison and documentation, and there are marginalia and sketches alongside several of the studies which detail specific changes.

 

Study of the Moor, Hawkhurst, from the Lime Pond, by Stewart and Regnault, 1853 (RS MS/784/21)

 

While I could happily have spent my entire placement on this topic (in particular, attempting to gather more information on the elusive Stewart), another task with a very different focus then took over. As a potential contribution to the Making Visible project on the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, I catalogued a selection of original illustrations by Marcello Malpighi (1628-1694), biologist, physician, and one of the earliest observers to turn the microscope to the study of animal and vegetable structure. Located in the first volume of the Royal Society’s Malpighi Papers (MS/103), these drawings were subsequently used in his work Anatome plantarum … appendix … de ovo incubato, published by the Royal Society in 1675.

Malpighi had learned how to cut the blastoderm from a yolk and mount it on glass for study. His illustrations are highly detailed red chalk drawings of the development of a chicken embryo from just hours after fertilisation to hatching at twenty days. As a non-scientist I was first struck by the fine detail in Malpighi’s drawings, and the skill and technique he used to depict such intricacies. This made me want to dive straight into researching his work and motives, and I soon found that each illustration is described and each stage is written about extensively. He commented on the heart after just thirty hours of incubation, and illustrated the development of the dorsal folds and brain, and the fine structures in organs, vessels, and tissues.

 

Chicken embryo development, by Marcello Malpighi (RS MS/103 plate VI, page 158)

 

Malpighi came to the conclusion that some structures were pre-formed, and only invisible at first because they were simply too small or transparent to recognise. The eighteenth-century theory of preformationism, developed by scientists such as Albrecht von Haller and Charles Bonnet on the basis of Malpighi’s findings, posited that the embryos were pre-formed and needed only to grow. Malpighi’s work generated various questions and opened up major areas of research in embryology, botany, human anatomy and pathology; however, whilst these illustrations are highly regarded to this day, we still know very little about the substantial development of the blastoderm.

These two very different projects, despite some mind-bogglingly scientific descriptions, have been great to work on. I am delighted the photographs of Regnault and Stewart are now out of the shadows and will soon be available on the Royal Society’s Picture Library. The original Malpighi drawings can be bought up from the archive upon request any time for Library readers, whether historians of science or those like me who just wish to sit and admire the artistic quality of the illustrations.

 

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