Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London

Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London

by Matthew C. Hunter

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Wicked Intelligence: Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London by Matthew C. Hunter

In late seventeenth-century London, the most provocative images were produced not by artists, but by scientists. Magnified fly-eyes drawn with the aid of microscopes, apparitions cast on laboratory walls by projection machines, cut-paper figures revealing the “exact proportions” of sea monsters—all were created by members of the Royal Society of London, the leading institutional platform of the early Scientific Revolution. Wicked Intelligence reveals that these natural philosophers shaped Restoration London’s emergent artistic cultures by forging collaborations with court painters, penning art theory, and designing triumphs of baroque architecture such as St Paul’s Cathedral.   Matthew C. Hunter brings to life this archive of experimental-philosophical visualization and the deft cunning that was required to manage such difficult research. Offering an innovative approach to the scientific image-making of the time, he demonstrates how the Restoration project of synthesizing experimental images into scientific knowledge, as practiced by Royal Society leaders Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, might be called “wicked intelligence.” Hunter uses episodes involving specific visual practices—for instance, concocting a lethal amalgam of wax, steel, and sulfuric acid to produce an active model of a comet—to explore how Hooke, Wren, and their colleagues devised representational modes that aided their experiments. Ultimately, Hunter argues, the craft and craftiness of experimental visual practice both promoted and menaced the artistic traditions on which they drew, turning the Royal Society projects into objects of suspicion in Enlightenment England.   The first book to use the physical evidence of Royal Society experiments to produce forensic evaluations of how scientific knowledge was generated, Wicked Intelligence rethinks the parameters of visual art, experimental philosophy, and architecture at the cusp of Britain’s imperial power and artistic efflorescence.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226017327
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 47 MB
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About the Author

Matthew C. Hunter is assistant professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University. He is coeditor of Beyond Mimesis and Convention: Representation in Art and Science and The Clever Object and an editor of Grey Room. In 2016, he received the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize.

Read an Excerpt

Wicked Intelligence

Visual Art and the Science of Experiment in Restoration London



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-01729-7


"I Resolved to Throw Aside All Manner of Hypotheses ... and to Attend Wholly to What the Appearances Themselves Would Teach Me"

LATE INTO THE SUMMER nights of 1683, observers from Europe to China tracked the appearance of a newly sighted comet. From a turret on Bishopsgate Street in the heart of the City of London, experimental philosopher Robert Hooke first sighted the object on July 16. Using an arsenal of telescopes he had largely designed and built himself, Hooke made his observations at London's Gresham College, the Elizabethan compound that served as his home and as meeting place for the Royal Society of London. And while he published amply in his lifetime, the most direct evidence of Hooke's engagements with this and other comets of the early 1680s comes from a collection of drawings now held in the Royal Society's library.

Taking a page almost at random, the severe interpretive challenges presented to the beholder by these drawings become readily, unpleasantly clear (fig. 1.1). Subdivided into two distinct registers by a horizontal fold of the folio-sized sheet, Hooke's notes from July 16–24, 1683, mix markings promiscuously. From the upper left-hand corner in both registers, we can read off his terse narration of the time and celestial place of each night's meteoric visit. Encoded in planetary symbols, alphanumeric scripts, and the chicken scratch of his own handwriting, these coordinates plot Hooke's observations against those made simultaneously by his philosophical contemporaries, such as Edmond Halley and John Flamsteed, Astronomer Royal at King Charles II's then newly constructed observatory at Greenwich in southeast London. As throughout this collection of difficult drawings, Hooke's texts also serve to visually frame the depictions of comets to which they repeatedly refer. Consider the image in the page's upper register, where the comet floats upward like a jellyfish trailing shimmering, stippled streamers as it moves between and beyond the smudgy, enumerated crosses Hooke uses to designate stars. Applying these swirling dots of ink to the page in stipples ("pricks," Hooke calls them in his accompanying notes) was clearly a messy job. If corrections, residual blots, and accidental markings litter these pages, Hooke began to make a virtue of his medium's unruly proclivities as the observations progressed. Gradually, he came to denote the comet by inking its stippled head and dragging the viscous substance across the page. When drawing celestial sights on July 24, Hooke indicated the meteor's tail at the page's lower left with sequential smudges of still-tacky ink ground into the coarse weave of the paper.

Unknown to and actively concealed from modern interpretation, these drawings from the 1680s appear worlds away from the elegant renderings of comets apparently produced under Hooke's auspices less than two decades earlier. More problematically, they betray few of the salient properties interpreters have particularly come to value in the crisp depictions of natural phenomena that Hooke oversaw as the Royal Society's de facto engine of graphic production from the early 1660s through the mid-1680s (fig. 1.2). As seen in drafts from the winter of 1664–65 that have been attributed to Hooke, comets were conventionally depicted in mid-seventeenth-century philosophical circles as gem-like collections of starry forms arrayed beneath spare, dated legends. Allowing that we reverse the optical values of these inky stars and the dried bone of their environing page, these markings might suggest how a comet looked in the less densely light-polluted heavens above later seventeenth-century Europe. Precisely outlined, the comet's Catherine-wheel head in the drawing from December 12, 1664, casts its stippled spray diagonally back toward the Cor Hydra, the sole astronomical location named here. Like contemporaneous renderings of that meteoric object sent to the Royal Society from Paris by Christiaan Huygens (fig. 1.3) or from Johannes Hevelius in Danzig, these images are precise, neat, and economical in their notation. Where Hooke's images from the 1680s would be crammed with multiple nights of observations (or multiple observations from the same night), these drawings of 1664–65 present one astronomical sighting per spare, luminous page.

How do we account for the profound diff erences obtaining between these two sets of drawings—sets both depicting comets, made in pen and ink, apparently by the same agent in the same city less than two decades apart? Any satisfactory explanation would need to attend to a range of factors surrounding their production and reception. We would want to note how Robert Hooke had been charged by the Royal Society in the winter of 1664–65 to make observations of comets "with all diligence and exactness." Not yet thirty years old when he received this commission, Hooke was then "on loan" to the Royal Society from chemist Robert Boyle and angling to have his appointment as the institution's Curator of Experiments made permanent. Given what recent scholars have seen as a taste for minute pictorial finish and graphic precision in the early Royal Society, the publicly exhibited 1664 comet drawings might be cast as hewing close to his patrons' visual fancy—at a moment in which Hooke's courtship of elite taste was keenly opportune. Even though Hooke likely did not execute these 1664 drawings, we could also stress their strong continuities with the program of draftsmanship he was then theorizing and exhibiting to the Royal Society. By contrast, this explanation might well continue, the 1680s drawings were produced at a moment when Hooke occupied an international profile in the experimental-philosophical community and a range of prominent positions in Restoration London; among other titles, Hooke was then Secretary of the Royal Society, Professor of Geometry at Gresham College, and leading collaborator with Christopher Wren in the architectural rebuilding of fire-ravaged London. Made by a powerful philosopher who no longer had to impress patrons, we could conclude by emphasizing how Hooke's late drawings apparently had an audience of one. As his period editor claimed at least, they were produced "only as Helps to his own Memory."

The concerns of this chapter lie less in elaborating an explanation like the one I have just sketched than with the methodological contours framing such an interpretation. When plotted as a chronological displacement of the closed, distinct, and certain by profusions of ruptured, ephemeral forms—when framed as a classic art-historical problem—these drawings steer interpretation directly to the heart of matters that have informed the understanding of Hooke's visual project for three decades and implicitly implicated it for a century. That is, the conception of the seventeenth century as a period defined by a fundamental shift in ways of seeing registering in visual artifacts was one staked out by no less a figure than Heinrich Wölfflin. From "the perception of the object by its tangible character—in outlines and surfaces," so Wölfflin claimed in his seminal studies of baroque art, the seventeenth century marked a turn away from the Renaissance's privilege of the static and the certain toward a desire for movement, instantaneity, and, above all, an embrace of the experience of the eye: "a perception which is by way of surrendering itself to the mere visual appearance" (eine Auff assung, die dem bloßen optischen Schein sich zu überlassen imstande ist). A century old though Wölfflin's reading is, the "surrender to the eye" he diagnosed has continued to inflect a range of important interpretations. Where Svetlana Alpers influentially positioned Hooke as exemplary of the acquiescent reception of optical appearances in seventeenth-century northern European visual culture, interpreters like Stuart Clark have more recently explored the vertiginous anxieties that such reliance on the visual provoked among early modern intellectuals—what Clark has called the period's "loss of optical nerve." From crisp articulation in the 1660s to smudgy, blobby blurs two decades later, we might thus say, Hooke's shifting graphic style materializes a final collapse of the Renaissance's tactile linearity and a triumph of baroque, painterly sight.

The appeal of plotting experimental draftsmanship in the terms of this organizing art-historical narrative is that it actually seems to speak to the observational concerns voiced by Robert Hooke and his colleagues. Philosophy's impending experimental reformation depended, so Hooke declared contemporaneously with the mid-1660s comet sightings, on "a sincere Hand, and a faithful Eye to examine, and to record, the things themselves as they appear." By the 1680s, it was as if that impulse to reconcile optical data into graspable, haptic form had been abandoned entirely, sacrificed to smudgy evocations of retinal events. Aided then by his weird, halting drawings, Hooke had foresworn his theories about comets in favor of optical experience alone. The comet drawings were made, he claimed, as he threw "aside all manner of Hypotheses concerning them ... to observe them as if there never had been any such Appearance before, and to attend wholly to what the Appearances themselves could teach me." Framing the drawings in art history's treasured narrative forms thus ends up producing a story eminently conducive to histories of the humble, prolix nature of English empirical science.

Yet concealed by this attractive, interdisciplinary synthesis that has dominated recent work on the Royal Society is the devilishly clever and surprisingly successful bricolage at the heart of Hooke's 1680s comet drawings. To make that ingenuity comprehensible, this chapter aims to subtly short-circuit the interpretive desire that would pitch Hooke's celebrated graphic work from the mid-1660s as a classic apex and its strange, hybrid sequels as only so many surrenders. Beginning with the totemic Micrographia (1665), I trace the intersections between conceptions of drawing and experimental-philosophical identity contemporaneously worked out by Hooke, Christopher Wren, and other prominent figures of the early Royal Society. If instrumentally aided observation was to be a heroic task of discovery that figured the experimentalist as a "new Columbus," then drawing would edify beholders by presenting certified sights through techniques of graphic enclosure theorized by and practiced in the early modern artistic tradition. But what if that target of observation changed every time it was seen, rupturing any graphic boundaries by which it would be enclosed? How could the experimentalist retool his eyes to see entities that corroded not only his theories but those very seen bodies themselves? These are questions that Robert Hooke came to ask when looking at comets in the early 1680s. What makes Hooke's late, lambasted drawings so fascinating, then, is how they reveal a philosophical observer's recursive, self-conscious negotiation between the guidance of artistic perception and places where other lessons had to be learned. Likewise, wrestling with Hooke's experimental draftsmanship and the conceptions of teaching theorized through it provides an opening in which to explore what art-historical narration reveals and conceals, where our eyes too must turn outward.

Not So Much a Teaching as an Entangling

That Hooke would position his 1680s drawings at a juncture with teaching gestures toward the theme of educational reform which runs like a red thread through early modern natural philosophy. Rather than following the canonical authority of ancient thinkers like Aristotle or Galen, so men and women across Europe (and beyond it) increasingly argued, natural knowledge would best advance by integrating new technologies, giving new credence to the evidence of observation, and profiting from an expanded field of printed sources. This work often found encouragement at courts and urban centers, in spaces where university-educated scholars were gaining new contact with and respect for the skilled manipulations of matter achieved by artists and craftsmen. Commensurate with an increasingly global traffic in material goods, mathematical academies emerged in trading cities such as Florence, Venice, Seville, and London, teaching skills to merchants and navigators that were beyond the curriculum of the great medieval universities. Drawn together with a range of esoteric sources, these urban, courtly modes of natural knowledge claimed an ambition long asserted by the magical tradition. Not only would the investigator understand nature, but she would change it. The aim of the "new sciences," so Francis Bacon claimed, was not learned debate but "command of nature in action."

Many among the philosophers in seventeenth-century England who sought to study nature by experiment knew the universities and their learning were not the often-claimed bastions of reactionary conservativism. In the volatile atmosphere of the English Civil Wars (circa 1642–51), reformist currents had substantially transformed the teaching, the demographics, and even the educational intent of England's universities. At Cambridge, innovations ran the gamut from the embrace of metaphysical Cartesianism in the Platonist circles of Henry More to the intensive botanical studies pursued by John Ray, the likely draftsman of the 1664 comet drawings. The "Philosophical Club" catalyzed by John Wilkins at Oxford's Wadham College in the later 1640s built on the physiological tradition brought to the university by William Harvey (1578–1657), encouraging a strand of mechanical experimentalism later transmitted to the Royal Society by Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and others. Infused with strains of millenarian Protestantism, the reforms effected by this new learning were seen by many in experimentalist circles as so many symptoms of much broader transformations. Rather than training the sons of the elite for service to crown and own, universalizing education would flow out among the people, unleashing English economic power even as it effected the topsy-turvy conditions of the end of days.

Whatever else it may have been, Micrographia, the magnificent illustrated volume of optically assisted research that Hooke published in 1665 under the Royal Society's imprimatur, aimed to speak with that reformist, collectivist project. Individually, so Hooke claims in the preface, human knowledge is extremely limited; the reasoning subject relies on ideas formed from sensory impressions and stored in the faculty of memory. Because the production and management of ideas are so routinely flawed, thinking readily deteriorates into little more than guessing. "We often take the shadow of things," Hooke cautions, "for the substance, small appearances for good similitudes, similitudes for definitions; and even many of those, which we think to be the most solid definitions, are rather expressions of our own misguided apprehensions then of the true nature of things themselves." For Hooke and his colleagues, the collaborative project of experimental philosophy offered a crucial remedy to these individual faults. By enlisting masses of participants to perceive nature and commit their observations to public record, the grounds of reasoning could be shifted from the unreliable "Brain and the Fancy" of discrete individuals to broader, agreed standards. In Micrographia, Hooke modeled this process through Harvey's crucial and then still-recent insights on the circulation of the blood. Beginning in the hands and eyes, knowledge would pass into the bodily organs. "And so, by a continual passage round from one faculty to another," Hooke argues, "it is to be maintained in life and strength, as much as the body of man is by the circulation of the blood through the several parts of the body, the Arms, the Fat, the Lungs, the Heart, and the Head." As a healthy body sustains vitality by communicating nourishment between its various faculties, so would experimental philosophy perfect natural knowledge by gathering, testing, and integrating data from collaborators of diverse geographical, confessional, and other stations.

By design, this theory introduced an important asymmetry between the ambition of the philosophical collective and its individual contributor. If the collective enterprise aimed at nothing less than a reformation of philosophy, the individual's contribution was all the more valuable for being humble. Framing a frequently cited passage from Micrographia, Hooke stakes out the terms for individual entry into experimental philosophy this way: "There is not so much requir'd towards it, any strength of Imagination, or exactness of Method, or depth of Contemplation (though the addition of these, where they can be had, must needs produce a much more perfect composure) as a sincere Hand, and a faithful Eye, to examine, and to record, the things themselves as they appear." The discrete, philosophical contributor should trust to the larger experimental body the provision of refinements like imaginative analysis and methodical exactness; what the individual could meaningfully supply were reliable data gathered from tactile and optical inputs. So, Hooke claims, it is this that Micrographia aimed to deliver.

Excerpted from Wicked Intelligence by MATTHEW C. HUNTER. Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Table of Contents


“Very Able, Very Sordid, Cynical, Wrong Headed and Whimsical”
“I Resolved to Throw Aside All Manner of Hypotheses . . . and to Attend
Wholly to What the Appearances Themselves Would Teach Me”
Knives Out: Thinking On, With, Through, and Against Paper in the Mid-1660s
Pictorial Intelligence: Peter Lely, Experimental
Culture, and the Parameters of Painting
Cascade, Copper, Collection: Constellations of Images
in 1670s Experimental Philosophy
“The Wonderful Elaboratory of the Animal Body”:
The Royal Society’s Repository at Work
The Architecture of Science and the Science of Architecture

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