What kind of images were seen by the early Fellows of the Royal Society? Who made the images, why were they made, and how were they used? These questions will be addressed in a new exhibition, Science Made Visible: Drawings, Prints, Objects, which will be on display at the Society during the Summer Science Exhibition 2018 and afterwards.

Science Made Visible is the result of the AHRC-funded research project Making Visible: the visual and graphic practices of the early Royal Society, based at the University of Cambridge. Via a systematic survey of all the images that remain in the archives from the Society’s first fifty years, from 1660 to 1710, the project has examined how visual representations were used in the process of conducting early modern science.

The material on display, drawn from the Society’s archives, gives a unique perspective on the variety of topics that were depicted in this period, ranging from botany to new machines, and from microscopic to anatomical observations. The methods used to make these images differed greatly – simple pen sketches were used alongside skilled drawings in red chalk and elaborate colour paintings. Similarly, sizes varied from small marginal drawings in letters to published books with pictures, as well as large sheets and fold-out maps.


Marcello Malphigi, Anatomes plantarum pars altera (London, 1679), Tabula XI. Royal Society Library.


Most of the images had a clear role and function in the context of scientific experimentation and reporting. Take for example the fields of microscopy and astronomy. Only at the beginning of the seventeenth century were sight-enhancing instruments (microscopes and telescopes) invented and used to investigate previously unseen worlds. To communicate these observations, visual depictions were critical. As instruments were not yet standardized, two observers looking at the same star, or a similar insect, might see very different things. To be able to compare observations, it was essential to provide as much detail as possible in both word and image. Simply put, two scientists looking through microscopes or telescopes might not see the same thing, so documenting what each did see was vital for further investigation.

Stephen Worlidge, after a design by William Petty FRS, Model of a twin-hulled ship (before 1685), Royal Society Collections. Wood, paint and varnish.


Images in the collections of the Royal Society also depicted machines and inventions. Sometimes these represented actual objects and models, as in the case of the double-bottomed boat, or catamaran, that William Petty designed. Other drawings, such as Robert Hooke’s water-fetching machine, portray inventions that were never realised.


Robert Hooke, Apparatus for fetching water from any depth of the sea, 1663, Royal Society Archives Cl.P/20/35/003. Ink, red chalk and grey wash on paper.


The pictures that can be seen in the exhibition were made by diverse hands. In the course of their work, Royal Society Fellows frequently created images, which they then brought in to meetings for discussion and debate with colleagues. Natural philosophers, such as the astronomer Johannes Hevelius, the microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and the mathematician Renatus Franciscus Slusius, sent sketches, drawings and sometimes prints of their experiments and observations along with their letters. The Royal Society employed its own clerks and craftsmen to create visual material for their meetings and publications, with frequent mention in the accounts of the draughtsman and engraver Henry Hunt.


Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, Rat testicle in glass jar (1680), Royal Society Archives EL/L1/52/004b. Grey wash on paper.


Notwithstanding the names mentioned above, the vast majority of images found within the Royal Society’s archives were created by unknown artisans. Within the Society’s administrative books and records, many were copied by unknown clerks. Printed images are unsigned and thus the labour of the woodblock cutters, engravers and etchers who created them remains unattributable.

As you’ll see in the exhibition, Royal Society Fellows used visual material as part of their investigations into every area of interest, including topics as diverse as cheese-making and calligraphy. Their collaboration with image-makers formed an integral part of scientific practice in the early Royal Society. Thus everyone involved in this process – from draughtsman to copperplate cutter to Fellow – played an important role in the making of knowledge.


Richard Waller, Yellow Flag Iris (1689-1713), Royal Society Archives MS/131/034. Graphite, ink, and watercolour on paper.


We invite you to visit the Science Made Visible exhibition to see for yourselves the sheer variety of illustrative practices. And we hope you will agree that we can no longer think of these images as merely pretty pictures, or as representations of complete and finalized ideas – instead, we must view them as a vital part of the collaborative, messy and sometimes contentious process of creating new knowledge.


Sietske Fransen and Katherine Reinhart, Curators


The exhibition will run from 2 July until December 2018. It is free and open to the public.

The final conference of the Making Visible project, on ‘The Visual Worlds of the Royal Society’, will take place in Cambridge on 16-17 July 2018.


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