Go back to article: The Science Museum and the Leonardo da Vinci Quincentenary Exhibition of 1952

Broken English, shocking records

As the Science Museum went about recruiting appropriate lecturers and considering how to provide a good showing of models, a distraction arrived in the form of a letter from the German historian of technology Franz Maria Feldhaus. Gilbert had included his book of 1913, Leonardo der Techniker und Erfinder, in the short bibliography he had prepared for O’Dea in 1949. Word of the exhibition had reached Feldhaus and he wrote (in German, which Gilbert translated for the Director), offering to arrange models from Germany, as gifts or loans, and to give one or two lectures. He enquired about financial assistance for travel – he would come with his wife – and what fee might be paid for lectures.[19]

Gilbert was doubtful, to say the least. He thought Feldhaus too forward in proposing models from Germany and advised that, although an eminent authority on Leonardo and technology, his English was too poor for a lecture.[20] Sherwood Taylor concurred: ‘We do not want lectures in broken English.’ Feldhaus should be told of the exhibition plans for information and the matter left there.[21]

It is a surprise, then, to find Sherwood Taylor telling Gilbert in a memo of 6 June that at a lunch with members of the committee, not only was there talk of a longer run for the exhibition, but positive interest in a lecture by Feldhaus. The Royal Academy would pay him a fee and Sherwood Taylor would accommodate him and his wife in Oxford. He gave Gilbert a draft of a letter telling Feldhaus that the committee ‘were unanimous’ in wanting him to lecture.[22]

In fact, the letter was never sent. In a note added by Sherwood Taylor on 9 June, he explained to Gilbert that:

Since writing the above, information has been afforded me which would indicate that Dr Feldhaus is not a person who should be invited. Accordingly we should reply to the effect that the committee does not at present feel able to extend to him an invitation to come to England.

The change of heart had been precipitated by the distinguished historian of science Charles Singer, whom Sherwood Taylor was trying to persuade to contribute a lecture. He had written to Singer on 6 June, saying that he was hoping Feldhaus would talk about the mechanical inventions and inviting Singer to speak on Leonardo as an anatomist.[23] We can see that Sherwood Taylor had then taken it on himself to speak for the committee in rebuffing Feldhaus, for it was in a letter to Kelly of 13 June that he explained (or almost explained) the difficulty:

I happened to mention to Singer that we were thinking of inviting Feldhaus to lecture on Leonardo’s mechanical inventions and he told me that it would be undesirable to invite Feldhaus first because his English is almost non-existent and secondly for reasons which I hesitate to commit to print but which I believe you would think to be sufficient. I am looking round for somebody else.[24]

Singer and his wife Dorothea were well connected in Anglo-Jewish circles and had been active in assisting refugees from Nazi Germany. Singer must have been appalled to imagine Feldhaus on a distinguished programme of public lectures in London. In September 1947 he had included him among three German scholars in a telegram he had sent to the Swiss historian of medicine Henry Sigerist, asking him to join in a protest at their participation in a conference in Lausanne, because they had ‘shocking records’ from the Nazi era.[25]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150403/004