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

Reception and outcomes

The exhibition opened on Thursday 6 March 1952 and as early as 14 March a letter to The Times suggested that the weekend crowd was ‘so tremendous’ that opening hours should be extended into the evening, to allow people to visit ‘this wonderful exhibition’ (Kenworthy, 1952). Never one to linger, Kelly replied in a letter printed the following day that public interest had been ‘so enormous’ that it had been decided to open till 8.30 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Kelly, 1952). On 31 March he wrote to Sherwood Taylor that ‘The success of the Leonardo Exhibition is altogether beyond anything we had considered probable’ and he proposed an extension to 14 September, which would more than double the intended run, since the original closing date had been the end of May.[38]

There was significant press interest in the models, fulfilling Greenaway’s prediction that Leonardo would be ‘News’ in 1952. On 19 March two photographs appeared in The Times, one of them showing part of the science section display in the background (The Times, 1952). On 29 March there was a magnificent two-page spread in The Illustrated London News, with photographs of six of the models, again some of them showing the gallery, accompanied by the relevant Leonardo drawings (The Illustrated London News, 1952). Towards the end of the run Kelly wrote to Sherwood Taylor that this had been ‘one of the most successful Exhibitions we have ever given … when next you have another such idea, please don’t hesitate to let us know!’[39] The Royal Academy used the income to refurbish its antiquated heating system (Hutchinson, 1968, p 186).

Figure 6

A page from the Illustrated London News from 1952 showing a number of photographs of models in the exhibition with accompanying text

Page from The Illustrated London News: ‘On view in the Quincentenary Exhibition: machines devised by Leonardo da Vinci’, The Illustrated London News, 29 March 1952, pg 552

Figure 7

A page from the Illustrated London News from 1952 showing a number of photographs of models in the exhibition with accompanying text

Page from The Illustrated London News: ‘On view in the Quincentenary Exhibition: machines devised by Leonardo da Vinci’, The Illustrated London News, 29 March 1952, pg 553

Between October 1952 and January 1953 the Science Museum arranged a touring exhibition of the models and photographs to the City Museum and Art Gallery (Department of Science and Industry) in Birmingham, the City Museum, Bristol, the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, and the Glasgow Art Gallery. Gilbert repeated his lecture in Birmingham.[40] Models appeared elsewhere in connection with the quincentenary and 56 were displayed in 1953 at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan, having been commissioned the previous year to mark the anniversary. They are considered more accurate than those in the lost 1939 set (Landrus, 2013, p 326).

As for Sherwood Taylor, in March 1952 he had articles in The Spectator (‘Leonardo as Scientist’) and The Tablet (‘Leonardo the Humanist’). In the former he suggested that Leonardo ‘is perhaps to be thought of as scientist rather than painter’ (Sherwood Taylor, 1952a). It may reveal something about Gilbert’s choice of models, that Sherwood Taylor makes the point that not all the machines Leonardo drew were his own inventions, while a number of models in the exhibition are from designs Sherwood Taylor says were original with Leonardo. Perhaps something further is revealed in The Tablet, when Sherwood Taylor makes a distinction between machines that work beyond the power of man, such as cranes and pumps, and those that ‘accelerate and make more accurate the work of the hand’, where he detects the greater originality (Sherwood Taylor, 1952b). The same bias is evident in Gilbert’s choice of models.

Appropriate to the journal and to Sherwood Taylor’s own convictions, in The Tablet, he can offer some more Catholic sentiments than in The Spectator. He proposes a more integrated view – ‘Leonardo the scientist and Leonardo the artist were not two different people’ – but suggests that something was forfeited by his analytical focus:

Man's view of the world was not yet differentiated into a scientific and an artistic one: it was still the whole view of the middle ages, but extended –  indeed, perhaps distorted – towards natural science. If we see in Leonardo's work a wonderful portrayal springing from an understanding of structure, we see likewise an impoverishment of the spiritual content of his work as compared with that of his fore-runners and some of his contemporaries. (Sherwood Taylor, 1952b)

The Last Supper is a wonderful portrayal of character and emotion, but lacks any sense of ‘unique sacramental significance’ (Sherwood Taylor, 1952b).

Sherwood Taylor was invited by Alexandre Koyré, expenses paid, to speak at an international congress on Leonardo and science, to be held in Paris in 1952. Among his professional peers, he returned to his core interests and offered to speak on chemistry in the early sixteenth century, though he would pronounce in The Spectator that ‘the only scientific subject on which he [Leonardo] seems to have been incurious was chemistry’[41] (Sherwood Taylor, 1953).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/150403/006