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Five pictures: when art meets science – five online talks by Patricia Fara

posted on 22/01/24


The humanities and the sciences supposedly belong to separate cultures, but some of art’s most celebrated images stem from scientific roots and invite reflection on the nature of progress. Each of the five lectures in this series focuses on one famous picture to explore aspects of its inspiration, impact and influence.

Just as every picture tells a story, so too are there many different stories to tell. Who created it and why? What places and people does it show? Has its meaning changed over time? Does it conflict with written information or the impressions given by other artists?

Pictures capture a particular moment in time, but they also cast light on earlier conflicts and relationships. They can indicate possible futures that may have seemed feasible then, but in retrospect were never realised. While most individuals can be definitively identified, others remain unknown or symbolic, implying mystery or universal relevance.

Like novels or plays, images carry complex narratives that can be understood in different ways. Although there can never be a definitive interpretation, greater knowledge of the facts, context and possibilities illuminates even the most familiar of pictures and leads to greater appreciation.

They take place every Tuesday from 9th April to 7th May at 4.30pm (GMT +1) and, including Q&A, will probably last just under an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (2nd July 2024).

Register for the webinar series for £65

The talks

1. Robert Hooke, A Flea, 1665 (in Micrographia) (9th April 2024)

The diarist Samuel Pepys was so captivated by Micrographia that he stayed up all night admiring its detailed engravings. Robert Hooke’s powerful new microscope revealed a living world that had previously been invisible. A meticulous observer and talented draughtsman, Hooke laid bare the interiors of plants and minerals as well as displaying blown-up versions of the fleas, lice and other tiny creatures that tormented human beings. A delightfully eloquent writer, Hooke created an ostensibly scientific book that provided a strong religious injunction to contemplate the beautiful design of God’s creation.

2. William Hogarth, The Indian Emperor, or the Conquest of Mexico, 1732 (16th April 2024)

Commissioned by the Master of the Royal Mint, who had married Isaac Newton’s step-niece, this conversation piece features four children performing John Dryden’s revived Restoration play about imperial conquest. Newton is physically present as a marble bust on the mantelpiece gazing out above the audience of aristocratic adults and royal children, but the canvas is also laced with symbolic visual references to Newtonian science. Resembling gravitational forces that shoot through empty space, Newton is both nowhere and everywhere, an all-seeing divine presence looming over these frivolous human activities.

3. Joseph Wright of Derby, Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768 (23rd April 2024)

This surprisingly small canvas by a provincial artist depicts a domestic scene, yet it has become an international emblem of experimental science in the long 18th century. Emulating religious imagery, the strong central light emitted by a decaying skull illuminates the faces of a group clustered around the early Royal Society’s most revolutionary invention – an air pump that can suck the gas from a glass globe to create a vacuum. Dressed in red, his hand on a stop-cock controlling the inflow of air, an itinerant lecturer exerts quasi-divine power over the fate of a rare bird trapped inside the instrument.

4. Jacques Louis David, M & Mme Lavoisier, 1788 (30th April 2024)

This visually overwhelming portrait stands as a poignant symbol of the French Revolution. Painted by a radical artist, the enormous canvas depicts a chemical couple who revolutionised chemistry but were themselves victims of political upheaval. The right-hand half of the picture is devoted to the chemical achievements of Antoine Lavoisier, who gazes up admiringly at his deceptively glamorous wife. Far from being a conventional muse, Marie Paulze played a key role in her husband’s research and provided the technical illustrations for the book that established his international reputation.

5. J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed, 1844 (7th May 2024)

As railway lines sheared through the countryside, they indelibly altered both the physical landscape and the mental outlook of Victorian England. This wonderfully ambiguous painting depicts multiple reactions to the new steam technology that simultaneously divided and united the nation by demanding new approaches to time and distance. As the engine of modernity hurtles towards the future, it tramples everything in its path except for the emblem of speed, the hare racing along the tracks – but for how long will this creature of nature be able to outpace its mechanical rival?

Image: Robert Hooke, Micrographia, flea, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

The speaker

Dr Patricia Fara

Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge and historian of science. She was President of the British Society for the History of Science from 2016 to 2018. She is currently President of the Antiquarian Horological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the recipient of the 2022 Abraham Pais award of the American Physical Society. Her prize-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) has been translated into nine languages. Her other highly acclaimed books include Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career (2021) and A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in The First World War (2018).

Register for the webinar series for £65

Frequently asked questions

What methods of payment do you accept?

An electronic invoice will be sent to your e-mail address 1–3 working days after you have completed our registration form. Payment can be made online using AMEX, Apple Pay, Google Pay, MasterCard or Visa.

How do I purchase the webinar series as a gift?

Please contact us specifying how many subscriptions you would like and who they are for (we require their full name and e-mail address). We will invoice you directly, and after we have received your payment we will release the webinar joining instructions to your friend(s) or family member(s).

Can I purchase a single episode?

No, unfortunately not. The series must be purchased in full.

How do I join the webinar?

An e-mail confirmation will be sent to you after you have paid for your subscription, which includes your unique link for joining the webinar. Reminder e-mails will be sent to you one day and one hour before each event. We recommend that you download the Zoom software in advance of the first webinar.

Can I watch the live broadcast(s) on more than one device?

Only one device can be connected to the live broadcast(s) at any one time. If you wish to purchase a second subscription, please contact us.

What happens if I am unable to attend the live broadcast(s)? 

A recording will be uploaded to a dedicated webpage approximately two hours after the live broadcast. For copyright reasons, these recordings cannot be made available indefinitely; access is granted for eight weeks after the final live broadcast of the series.

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