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

Lecturers, models and photographs

With Gilbert’s help, Sherwood Taylor continued to work on the promised ‘formidable series’ of scientific lectures. Singer was willing to speak on ‘Leonardo on the Structure and Action of the Human Body’, but he too asked for a fee.[26] Kelly demurred at thirty guineas, when between five and ten pounds was more usual.[27] Singer acquiesced when offered ten guineas and encouraged with the fact that Kenneth Clark had agreed to speak.[28] Edward N da C Andrade was asked to deal with the physical sciences, but he declined.[29]

In the end the series opened with the outstandingly appropriate prospect of the prestigious art historian Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich speaking on ‘Leonardo and the Relation of Art to Science’ (Royal Academy, 1952, p xi). This was surely not arranged by Sherwood Taylor, but the Science Museum had put together a creditable slate by securing, alongside Singer, the physician and medical historian Kenneth Keele (proposed by Singer) on the heart and blood, and a leading authority on aeronautics Dr Ivor B Hart (proposed by Gilbert).[30] In addition, after various alternative suggestions, Gilbert himself gave the lecture on ‘Leonardo the Engineer’. He could scarcely have imagined, when he first penned his proposal to O’Dea that he would join a lecture list with such cultural luminaries as Kenneth Clark, Ernst Gombrich and Nikolaus Pevsner (Royal Academy, 1952, p xi).

Gilbert had many more mundane tasks in relation to the exhibition, being in charge of the provision and display of the models and the photographs. He wrote the labels for the scientific section, the catalogue entries and the sectional introduction. Even on the lecturing front, it was not always glamorous, as it was Gilbert who managed the science side of the visits by eight hundred industrial apprentices over four evenings during the exhibition, following an initiative of Sir Robert Hyde. As Sherwood Taylor explained to Kelly:

It seems to me that he [Gilbert] is the only one who can give the sort of technical account of these [machines] and their modern counterparts that would be required by these apprentices who know a great deal about their trade and not much about anything else.

To be fair, Kelly himself may have had the greater challenge in covering the art. He did his best to rise to the occasion, including among Leonardo’s attributes ‘extraordinary eyesight … [he] would have made a great cricketer – probably bowling googlies, for he was a most ingenious man’.[31]

As for the models, the Science Museum already had five and Gilbert incorporated these into the show. Three were in the aeronautics collection and had been acquired in 1929 from the Associazione Italiana di Aerotecnica, and two were weighing instruments acquired in 1930 from the manufacturers W. and T. Avery Limited. A short news item in The Manchester Guardian of 4 March, a few days before the opening, must have been based on a conversation with Gilbert. Four models were ‘old friends from the Science Museum’ (the two sets of scales were counted as a pair), and ‘To decide what new specimens should be added has meant examining hundreds of sketchy plans sandwiched between anatomical and other studies in notebooks containing five thousand pages’. They had been made in a workshop in Wimbledon, and the difficulties of model-making were alluded to with the point that the sketches were drawn in perspective from a single angle. ‘Mr Gilbert, of the machine-tool department in the Museum, does not know whether all these machines were entirely Leonardo’s own inventions [a point Gilbert makes in the catalogue (Royal Academy, 1952, p xi] or whether they were ever built in his lifetime’ (The Manchester Guardian, 1952).

Gilbert’s selection of nine new models included two measuring instruments for meteorology – a balance hygroscope and a wind-plate anemometer – a timber-truss road bridge with two decks, and the famous airscrew helicopter.

Figure 2

black and white photograph of a working model of a static helicopter sail on a wooden base

Model of an airscrew helicopter constructed from a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, circa late fifteenth century

His predilection, however, in line with his own professional interests, was for machines that replaced hand-work – file-cutting, screw-cutting, boring logs for water pipes and pump-barrels, and making concave and plane mirrors.[32] It is noteworthy that Gilbert choose none of the machines of war that have since attracted so much attention, and neither was he much interested in modes of transport.

Figure 3

Black and white photograph of a working model of a wooden machine for boring holes in wood

Model of a log boring machine from a design by Leonardo da Vinci

The company chosen for the work was Goacher Model Engineering Ltd, with an address in St James’s Place, Piccadilly, and a workshop in Wimbledon. They were already making models for the Agricultural Section of the Museum, and their work, Gilbert told the Director, was ‘excellent’.[33] It is worth noting that Gilbert’s specification mentioned that ‘The models should be in accordance with the manuscript sketches and text rather than with the models prepared for the Italian exhibition of 1939’.[34] Accuracy was valued; Sherwood Taylor remarked that Gilbert’s casual reference to cotton wool, for the absorbent material for the hygroscope could not be correct for the period and it would have been sheep’s wool.[35] The models were carefully and attractively made in an unassuming style, mostly in wood. The art historian A E Popham, who lectured on ‘The Windsor Drawings’ in the accompanying series, wrote in The Burlington Magazine that they had been ‘beautifully constructed’, saying incorrectly that this had been done by Science Museum staff (Popham, 1952, p 128). 

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a working wooden model of a machine for grinding concave mirrors

Model of a machine for grinding concave mirrors from a design by Leonardo da Vinci. Made by Goacher Model Engineering Ltd.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a working wooden model of a machine for cutting wooden screws

Model of screw-cutting machine from a design by Leonardo da Vinci, fifteenth century

Gilbert also had charge of organising the photography of drawings that were to be included in the exhibition, where the originals could not be borrowed.[36] There was concern over what quality the Museum’s photographic studio would be able to produce, but Kelly was reassured by seeing three samples, pronouncing them ‘excellent, which relieves my mind a good deal’.[37] Gilbert made his selection of 146 photographs from facsimiles of the Atlantic Codex in Milan and of the manuscripts at the Institut de France. A few original drawings were included in the science section, including the famous ‘Child in the Womb’ from Windsor Castle (Royal Academy, p 84). 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150403/005