Here at numbers 6-9 Carlton House Terrace there is one man who sets girls’ hearts fluttering, one man who makes the ladies swoon … step aside Colin Firth, for Mr Davy is the Royal Society’s very own Mr Darcy.
During tours of the Royal Society it’s the portrait of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) by Thomas Lawrence that grabs our female visitors’ attention, often greeted with sighs of “oh, isn’t he handsome” and “what a dashing young man”. He is also a favourite amongst staff – one colleague, who will remain nameless to save her blushes, has a print of his portrait permanently on display on her desk. When I asked her what it was about Davy’s portrait that she found so appealing, she enthused, “he looks very dashing, elegant and well-dressed”. He is depicted with a faint smile which, she says, “makes him look approachable and like he wouldn’t mind having a bit of fun”.
The portrait was painted around 1821, when Davy’s career was flying. The newly-elected President of the Royal Society stands proudly, a man in control, confidently meeting the viewer’s eye; his invention, the miners’ safety lamp, is visible to the left of the painting. By contrast the portrait of Davy painted by Henry Howard (housed at the National Portrait Gallery) has a very different pose. In this portrait painted in 1803, the year he was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society, Davy sits with his head resting on his hand gazing off to the viewer’s right; he appears distracted and dreamy, perhaps contemplating his future career.
Humphry Davy (who features in our current exhibition) was a chemist, inventor, poet and traveler. He was a leader in the field of electrolysis through which he discovered a number of elements: potassium and sodium (1807); and barium and calcium (1808). He was also the first to isolate magnesium and strontium (1808). In 1815 Davy invented his miners’ safety lamp, which dramatically reduced the number of miners killed in explosions caused by exposed flames.
So, with a list of key discoveries and inventions to his name, it is clear that Davy was not just a pretty face, but what of his love life? Well known amongst his peers in scientific and literary circles and with the public (who were captivated by his lively lectures at the Royal Institution), it perhaps follows that Davy needed a partner who could keep up with his hectic work and social life. Cue wealthy widow and society figure Jane Apreece, née Kerr (1780-1855). Humphry Davy came from humble beginnings in Cornwall and was not wealthy despite his success and fame, so may not have seemed much of a catch; and yet after some pursuing, Jane accepted Davy’s proposal of marriage on 2 March 1812. He was knighted on 8 April and they were married three days later. Davy was at the height of his fame and according to biographer Raymond Lamont-Brown, Jane “basked in this and her new title of Jane, Lady Davy”.
It seemed that the pair were a great match: both were sociable, ambitious and keen to travel and be seen with the ‘right’ people. However it wasn’t all rosy and things began to go wrong when the couple embarked on a European tour in October 1813 with Davy’s new scientific assistant Michael Faraday (1791-1867). The saying ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’ seems apt here as Jane’s more unfavourable characteristics came to light in her dealings with Faraday who, by all accounts, she was rather unkind to, treating him more as a servant than as a colleague of Davy’s. She became frustrated and bad-tempered when the two men discussed science instead of focusing attention on her.
Both Davy and Jane were fiery, strong-willed characters so were perhaps destined to clash and, over the following few years, the couple drifted further apart as it became apparent that their interests and ambitions were very different. They continued to share a home but went about their lives independently, with Jane throwing herself into the local social scene and Davy pursuing his scientific interests and travelling widely. Yet despite their differences they seemed to have a mutual respect, and there is no suggestion that they were ever unfaithful to one another.
So, perhaps not the most successful marriage of the 19th century, but they were clearly fond of each other and Davy certainly had a romantic side to him. It wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without a spot of poetry, so I’ll leave you with a verse penned by Davy himself. This extract is from a letter dated 13April 1811 which Davy wrote to Jane before they were married; it contains a poem inspired by a stroll through the misty valley of the River Wye, and is accompanied with the note:
“[These words] will prove to you that I am no poet; but they will prove to you that I am an honest man & that I perform my promises. They are for your eye only; & my object will be answered if they amuse you for a minute”.
Thou once wert fixed where in the middle skies
The Giant Mountain lifts his sovereign height
Above a hemisphere. Where in the beam
Of midday suns, the unmelted ice transmits
The etherial light, the deep blue light of heaven.
The Arve & the Arveira rolled their waves
Beneath thee & their troubled waters mixed.
Before the plains were peopled, long before
The majesty of Nature was perceived
By mortal eye, thy dwelling place was raised
Admist the monuments of elder time
A birth primæval of this nether world …