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


An oddity of the ongoing ‘visual turn’ in science studies is the discrepancy between the careful attention now paid to scientific images, and the sporadic attention paid to how those images were in fact produced. What is well known to art historians – that the materiality of the image and complexity of image making are constitutive of genre and aesthetic effect – has remained obscure to historians of science who are otherwise increasingly engaged with visual language and strategy (e.g. Baxandall, 1995). The mystery deepens if we consider the extent to which the discipline has elsewhere been concerned with ‘opening up the black boxes’ of mediating technologies, and with the practices of theory-making (Latour, 1987; Clarke and Fukimura, 1992; Roberts, Schaffer and Dear, 2007). More often than not, scientific and technical imagery is discussed as if its appearance on the page or the screen was a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than the work of the copper-plate engraver, the landscape painter or the computer programmer.

There are, of course, exceptions.[1] One particularly influential attempt to grapple with the process of image-making is to be found in Lorraine Daston’s and Peter Galison’s treatment of ‘mechanical objectivity’, described first in a 1992 essay and again in Objectivity (Daston and Galison, 1992, 2007). In these works Daston and Galison describe how scientists working in the nineteenth century pursued ‘truth-to-nature’ by enlisting ‘self-registering instruments, cameras, wax molds, and a host of other devices […] with the aim of freeing images from human interference’ (Daston and Galison, 2007, p 121). Here we have a neat interweaving of the practices of theorising and image-making – precisely because the scientific practice in question was image making. No doubt, this is an important development in scientific representation: self-recording devices were certainly novel and elicited much comment. Yet the nineteenth-century also saw a flood of innovations within the much older technology of book printing, for example the development of chromolithography, steel engraving, and photo-mechanical illustration. Moreover, these techniques were often used in addition to the instruments of automatic engagement with nature, precisely in order to bring scientific illustration to a wider audience and cater to that audience’s expectations. It is with the technologies and conventions of image production that the present essay is concerned.

My essay begins with a close analysis of meteorologist Luke Howard’s cloud sketches, which date from the beginning of the nineteenth century and accompany his novel classificatory scheme – the cirrus, stratus and cumulus of modern weather-watching. In looking at Howard’s clouds it is my purpose to show that, as this coolly scientific classification of untamed nature took hold, the imagery with which it was associated was increasingly bound by the conventions of Romanticism, and in particular the rugged ruralism of the picturesque. Lest this imaginative trend be thought limited to the first half of the nineteenth century, the remainder of my essay considers the impact of photography on the interpretation and depiction of scientific subjects. In particular, I look at the lunar photography of James Nasmyth, which exhibits neither straightforward ‘truth-to-nature’ nor strictly ‘mechanical’ objectivity. Indeed Nasmyth’s photographs are typical of what I call ‘manufactured objectivity’, in which qualities later to be deemed subjective or contrived are praised for those very same reasons. Moreover, the persistence of convention and the praise of contrivance were not hindrances to objectivity – rather they were its guarantors, a fact that can only be revealed by looking at issues of genre and technique. My case-studies are drawn from the pictorial collections of the Science Museum – an institution whose own history is, I argue in conclusion, particularly tied up with issues of accuracy, depiction and generic convention. These are brought together in the consideration of 'atmosphere' – a term as important for the historian of meteorology as for the exhibition curator.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/140208/002