Go back to article: Made real: artifice and accuracy in nineteenth-century scientific illustration

Conclusion: art at the Science Museum

My intention in this essay has been to offer a way in to discussion of generic convention and image production, as a contribution to the growing literature on representation in the sciences. But the choice of Howard and Nasmyth as examples is not merely based on their suitability for my argument – in the Science Museum their works share an institutional home that is highly apt for considerations of technical depiction.

The first serious attempts to add artworks to the Science Museum’s collection date from the 1950s. It was then that the vast collection of ‘aeronautica’ amassed by Winifred Penn-Gaskell began to arrive. Now the Museum had depictions of early balloon and heavier-than-air flight to accompany its excellent material holdings (Doherty, 2014). More controversially, in 1952 director Frank Sherwood Taylor acquired Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale by Night, a magnificently dramatic depiction of iron smelting on the Shropshire borders (Anthony, 2010).

Figure 24

Oil painting from 1801 showing one of the Coalbrookdale ironworks, the Bedlam Furnaces along the river Severn, at night silhouetted against the fiery glow of a furnace being tapped.

Coalbrookdale by Night by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1801. Oil painting by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) showing one of the Coalbrookdale ironworks, the Bedlam Furnaces along the river Severn, at night silhouetted against the fiery glow of a furnace being tapped.

Almost immediately this purchase plunged Sherwood Taylor into highly involved discussion with his curators about matters of museology and art history. Sherwood Taylor had purchased Coalbrookdale in order, as he put it, to ‘fire the imagination of the spectator’, but to the Curator of Metallurgy Fred Lebeter, the painting was the inaccurate result of the overbearing Romantic imagination. Inevitably, the senior Sherwood Taylor (or perhaps the simple quality of the painting itself) won out, and to this day Coalbrookdale by Night plays an important part in the Museum’s depiction of the Industrial Revolution.[5]

The dominant quality of Coalbrookdale is of course the ‘atmosphere’ it brings to the depiction of a conspicuously man-made scene. This, after all, was the quality discerned by no less than Diderot in de Loutherbourg’s work (Baugh, 2008), and it was the quality sought by Sherwood Taylor as he attempted to ‘enliven’ the Science Museum’s ‘arid’ metallurgical displays.[6] As many writers on de Loutherbourg have shown, his atmospheric effects were derived from both his experience as a set-designer and his remarkable moving diorama, the ‘Eidophusikon’. This entertainment, subtitled ‘Various Imitations of Natural Phenomena’, consisted of a small stage on which de Loutherbourg used lights and artificial sounds to recreate such scenes as daybreak at Greenwich Park (replete with moving clouds), or the raising of Pandaemonium (replete with moving Satan).

Figure 25

Coloured ink drawing depiction of a moving diorama around which 18th century figures are gathered to watch

De Loutherbourg's moving diorama 'The Eidophusikon', subtitled 'Various Imitations of Natural Phenomena'.

Technology is doubly at the root of de Loutherbourg’s Romanticism, first in his use of industrial scenes in what he called Britain’s ‘Picturesque Scenery’, and second in the transference of mechanical entertainment to painting (de Loutherbourg, 1805).[7] And atmosphere defines de Loutherbourg’s work in both an art historical and museological sense: it is a shorthand for the transformation of landscape painting of which de Loutherbourg was a key witness. This was precisely the point Lebeter made to Sherwood Taylor when he criticised the painting – but what Lebeter saw as the distortions of painterly convention, Sherwood Taylor saw as a way in to the violent and awe-inspiring human story of industry (Anthony, 2010, p 94). The irony is that for de Loutherbourg’s contemporaries it was precisely the heightened emotion inspired by his work that allowed them to be called realistic (McCalman, p 78). Atmosphere is the very same quality – now mediating between art, technique and science – that we find astonishingly absent in Nasmyth’s Moon and hyper-present in Howard’s clouds. The sciences of the atmosphere, first among them meteorology and astronomy, were in no way divorced from the more general tendency to pursue painterly atmospherics, be it in the form of Romantic landscape in the manner of de Loutherbroug and Howard, or imaginative reconstruction and stark monochrome in the work of Nasmyth. More than this, my examples are outside the modern ‘two cultures’ thinking that too easily separates artistic and scientific work. That the picturesque was bound up with accuracy, and photography with artisanal skill shouldn’t surprise us, and yet frequently it has done. As is shown most clearly in the case of Howard’s clouds, picturesque conventions which required accurate subjects (clouds, trees, rocks) were themselves integral to the establishment of scientific authority.[8]

But these are relatively easy points for the academic historian to take on board and make use of – indeed one of the great virtues of Daston’s and Galison’s work has been the framework it has provided for people to work within and against.[9] For the museum curator, of course, things are slightly different, and the mechanics of image production do not necessarily make for an attractive exhibition topic. That said, the image as object is clearly preferable to the image as gallery-dressing. Examining the mechanisms, high-ways and by-ways and personal involvements of depiction suggests a more complex reading of historical imagery, too easily seen as either straightforwardly illustrative of a really-existing nature, or as the indicator of a period aesthetic. In both cases the image has done its work too well, and we need to return a little obscurity to the scene. The worlds of de Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale, Howard’s clouds and Nasmyth’s Moon alike were created with high contrivance, and, as I have suggested, this does not diminish as the nineteenth-century passes. Indeed there is no reason that we couldn’t follow these routes through ‘hyperreality’[10] up to the present day, outlining categories not of epistemic but practical virtue, not of objectivity and subjectivity but of manufacture, material, convention and contrivance.



I am deeply grateful to Jenny Bangham, Nick Jardine, Joshua Nall and the essay’s anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice, and to Kate Steiner and Richard Nicholls for their help and guidance throughout.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140208/005