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

William Poole enjoys the insights but prefers his prose less florid

January 9, 2014

What kind of pictures did early modern scientists draw when trying to explain new theories? This is the question of Wicked Intelligence, specifically as it was posed in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, and as it was answered by the leading experimentalist of Restoration London, the polymath Robert Hooke. The result is a lavishly illustrated, excitably written book, adorned with images gleaned from a trawl through the archives of the Royal Society. The catch is arresting: here we find images of instruments with their innards revealed or hidden, as a paper flap is lifted or replaced; of a woman with fatally large breasts, accompanied by the very linen tapes used to measure her; of paper fish; of a felt hatter’s workshop; of a dissected porpoise, “middle-sized storks”, and of course, Hooke’s iconic insects, needle points and urine crystals depicted and discussed in his classic Micrographia (1665). This is a rich field for investigation, because Hooke was himself artistically trained, apprenticed in his youth to the artist Peter Lely, and also because Hooke’s papers have survived in gratifying quantities. Hooke himself was exercised by the relation between depiction and truth, suspicious of what he termed “Mr. Engraver’s fancy”. This book is about how the “fancy” of Hooke and his contemporaries addressed that problem, and Hunter extends his coverage to all sorts of discussions not immediately connected to the core interest of illustration itself.

There is much to commend this book. We learn new things about the Royal Society’s Repository, for instance, effectively an early museum as well as a store of natural and artificial curiosities. We hear about William Petty and Christopher Wren discussing the Pyramids, and about the elaborate models constructed for St Paul’s Cathedral. Less prominent figures feature, too, among them the Bristol collector William Cole, and Henry Jacobs, Hooke’s man in Portugal; Restoration science was not all just about London.

But I have two problems with Wicked Intelligence. The first is that often a great deal of pressure is brought to bear on slight, contingent pieces of evidence, even where there are more obvious if less exciting explanations. The book is imbued with complexities and comparisons that I was too often not convinced really inhered in or were supported by the evidence itself. Two differing classes of optical illustration, for instance, are persuaded into an exemplification of a large-scale shift in artistic perception, where the former were carefully reworked for publication and the latter jotted down while at the telescope – and that is surely the simpler answer to the difference. Again, the sitters of Lely’s portraits were memorably sleepy-eyed, yes, and Hooke sedated ants with alcohol, yes – but is this really an insightful connection between the two?

The second, connected problem concerns style. Hunter favours a mix of jargon and hyperbole that can prove distracting. Where I might hope for something to be “explained”, here it will be “progressively exposited”; and what I might propose as “notable” is for Hunter possessed of “excessive, flabbergasting awesomeness” – and this just in the introduction. Further into the book, there are whimsical combinations of jolly in-discipline references with a knowing populism: “Not only is the paper micrometer filled with humans and animals like a good Latourian hybrid; but, but thinking with it, we might exclaim with David Bowman, ‘O my God! – it’s full of stars!’” This kind of thing almost made me put aside a book that otherwise addresses a gripping subject. I do wish academics would agree (with Hooke) that when it comes to prose, less is more. The illustrations, however, are delicious.

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

By Matthew Hunter
University of Chicago Press, 352pp, £38.50
ISBN 9780226017297 and 73 (e-book)
Published 11 November 2013

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