Category Archives: Art

Lil’ Ol’ St Nick

Whether its Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, we have quite a fixed  image (soft-drink company influenced?) in our heads of what the man delivering presents down the chimney should look like. But could this be what the original ‘Santa’ really looked like…?

Wooden statue of St Nicholas, France, 1801-1900 (Image credit: Science Museum)

This rather charming tabbarded fellow in our collections is Saint Nicholas. He looks distinctly un-santa-esque because he was in fact the Bishop of Myra (now south-west Turkey) during the third century. Pictured with three children, it’s not surprising to find that Nicholas became the patron saint of young people. During his lifetime, he had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. Because of the many miracles attributed to him, he was also known as Nikolaos the Wonderworker - (imagine Santa with a superhero cape!).

But where does the Santa connection fit in? In the Netherlands (and other European countries), the evening before Saint Nicholas’s feast day (on 6 December) is the primary occasion for gift-giving – which in Dutch is Sinterklaas (like saying Saint Nicholas really quickly!).

Turns out that Lil’ Ol’ St Nick is also the patron saint of sailors, unmarried women, apothecaries, perfumers and pawnbrokers. Well with all that to deal with at least now we know what else Santa gets up to for the rest of the year

We’re all mugs for a royal wedding…

Oh we all love a royal wedding. With memorabilia manufacturers wasting no time to issue commemorative souvenirs featuring Prince William and his future missus, Kate Middleton, it’s an opportune moment to examine a few monarchical mementoes from our own collections…

Mugs to celebrate the marriage of Charles, HRH Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, were presented to child patients at the Lord Mayor Treloar Orthopaedic Hospital, Alton, England.

Charles and Diana commemorative mug, 1981. Credit: Science Museum, London

I’m rather a fan of this royal silhouette vase (Can you see it? Can you see it?!!!), created as part of an illusions exhibition for display in the Millennium Dome. Though not wedding ware, the original vase made by Kaiser Porcelain, celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee of 1977.

Can you guess who it is yet? The vase's shape creates an optical illusion, showing the profiles of the Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Credit: Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

If that isn’t ostentatious enough for you, check out this extravagant cigar holder, celebrating the coronation of the Bavarian king, Ludwig II in 1864.  With a penchant for building fairytale-like castles, Ludwig became known variously as The Swan King, the Fairy Tale King and latterly ‘Mad King Ludwig’.

Cigar holder representing the coronation of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Munich, Germany, 1864-1867

Clearly, ornate meerschaum pipes (a versatile clay-like material) were the royal souvenir fad of the day. Here’s another from the 1880s, this time picturing the coronation (or possibly wedding) of Frederick III, Emperor of Germany, and his consort Victoria.  Perhaps it’s time to resurrect the ornate pipe to mark Will and Kate’s nuptial celebrations?

Nothing more tasteful than commemorating a royal celebration with a giant ornate pipe. Credit: Science Museum, London

Finally, whilst nowadays there’s no pressure to produce an heir, Kate might still want to check out our Royal Births game for some tips…

Fantastic fireworks

It’s that time of year when leaves cover the ground, there’s a chill in the air, and household pets look distinctly nervous.

Hallowe’en has just passed and this weekend will see fireworks displays throughout Britain as the bonfires are lit for Guy Fawkes Night. But even the most spectacular pyrotechnics would be hard-pressed to beat these 17th-century creations.

Fiery dancers and a dragon, 1635 (Science Museum)

This engraving is from the Science Museum Library‘s copy of Pyrotechnia or, A discourse of artificial fire-works, written by John Babington and published in 1635.  A musical device ‘with anticks dancing’ is followed by a dragon spewing flame from its eyes, mouth, and … ahem … anus.

Pyrotechnia's water-borne fireworks (Science Museum)

There were also firework devices designed to float on water – this illustration shows a sailing ship, a mermaid, and another dragon about to do battle with a trident-waving Neptune. We’ve digitized more pages from Pyrotechnia on our Ingenious website.

It wasn’t all fun and games – Babington, a gunner, was also aware of the applications of gunpowder in warfare, and experimentation with devices such as these was a good way to try out about different powder ingredients. You can find out more in this book by Simon Werrett.

In the meantime, have fun at the fireworks if you’re off to a bonfire this weekend – hope you enjoy them as much as this young man!

Blowing the pocket money on fireworks, 1949 (NMeM / Daily Herald Archive / Science & Society)

An Artist in Search of Colour

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) was born in Germany and studied in Strasburg and Paris. He became artistic adviser at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1771-81.

As an innovative set designer and scene painter, he helped to lay the foundations of pictorial illusion in stagecraft. After abandoning theatre in the 1780s, he became an important figure in British landscape painting.

The Science Museum holds one of his most famous works, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, 1801. This epitomises the romantic view of the growth of industry in its formerly pastoral setting.

The development of coke smelting in Shropshire in the 18th century revolutionised the production of iron and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Coalbrookdale by Night © Science Museum / Science & Society

In the Science Museum Archives there is a letter from De Loutherbourg to Matthew Boulton, James Watt’s business partner.

He was desperate to find an ingredient for one of his colours, yellow copperas. The letter says:

“I am a little at leasure at present, and wanting it very much, even for the Small Pictures, wich you was so kind as to ask me to do for you”.

And what a difference the colour makes.

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale, 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

James Watt, RIP

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow…

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was known to sit for. At the time, 1792, he was fighting to save their steam engine business from legal challenges, but was wealthy enough to have built his house Heathfield near Birmingham to suit his growing family.

James Watt from painting by Lawrence, 1813 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1815, he was more relaxed, and more prepared to have his portrait painted. This one, by Thomas Lawrence, was much liked by the artist, who thought it was the finest he had ever painted, but the family – James Watt, and his eldest son James Watt Jnr – didn’t really care for it.

James Watt, Scottish engineer (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Another highly regarded artist, Sir Francis Chantrey, produced a marble bust for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815. Watt was swathed in a toga-like cloak as a 19th century conceit to show he was a true philosopher.

The bust was much copied, and even Watt had a go, using the bust to test his sculpture-copying machines. He wrote to a friend “I do not think myself of importance enough to fill up so much of my friends’ houses as the original bust does”.

James Watt, British engineer, as a young man, c 1769 painted 1860. Science Museum / Science & Society

This was painted after Watt’s death, but he is shown as a young man studying a mal-functioning model of a Newcomen steam engine. The challenge of trying to get it to work put Watt on the road to perfecting full-size engines.

Bizarrely there was even a Japanese woodcut, prepared in the 1880s for primary school children, showing him testing the steam from a boiling kettle in his aunt’s house.

The Northern Lights head south

In recent days, the aurora borealis, better known as the Northern Lights, have been visible at more southerly latitudes than usual thanks to solar storm activity.

If you tried to have a look but were scuppered by the weather, or like us at the Science Museum you’re just too far south, enjoy these images of the aurora from our picture library instead.

The aurora and icebergs in the Arctic, as depicted in the Illustrated London News, 1849 (Science Museum).

This 19th century magic lantern slide shows the aurora (Science Museum).

The Northern Lights over Iceland, 2005 (Jamie Cooper / Science & Society).

Of course, if you’re far south enough, you’ll be looking for the Southern Lights instead. The aurora australis is particularly elusive, as there’s a lot less inhabited landmass at high southern latitudes than in the north. It’s also been putting on a more widespread lightshow in recent days. But it would be hard to beat this view…

A time exposure of the Southern Lights, as seen from the Space Shuttle Endeavour, 1994 (NASA / Science & Society).

Deadly predators in Tate Britain

I visited Tate Britain last weekend to see a pair of fighter planes newly on show in the gallery’s central halls.

Sea Harrier jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

Created by British artist Fiona BannerHarrier and Jaguar sees a Sea Harrier suspended like a ‘captured bird’, according to the gallery, with a Jaguar nearby ‘belly up on the floor, its posture suggestive of a submissive animal’. It’s an arresting display.

Jaguar jet in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

There’s nothing else. Just the two jets, one stripped bare, flipped over and defenceless, the other hanging menacingly as if about to strike, both captured within the spare, classical surroundings of the art gallery.

Sea Harrier jet (detail) in Tate Britain, August 2010 (David Rooney)

I loved the simplicity of the show. With nothing to look at but the exhibits, I was soon lost in thought about what they meant, about the journey they’d made from manufacture, through use, to disposal and, ultimately, this display.

And, as with all experiences like this, it made me want to look at familiar things with fresh eyes. On show in the Science Museum’s Flight gallery is the first prototype that ultimately led to the Harrier, the Hawker P.1127, which first flew (half a century ago!) in October 1960.

Hawker P.1127 prototype jump-jet, 1960 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s a beautiful and terrifying craft, as Banner’s display brought home to me so strongly. A single jet engine with four swivelling nozzles enables the aircraft to take off vertically, hover, and fly forwards or backwards in a ballet of jet-powered precision – yet it’s a machine designed to kill.

Tough stuff – see both displays if you can.

Capturing clouds in science and art

You might wonder what this watercolour is doing in our Making the Modern World gallery. The chalky cliffs, thatched cottage and country children make a pleasant enough pastoral scene, but what does it have to do with science?

Watercolour by Edward Kennion with cloud study by Luke Howard

Watercolour by landscape artist Edward Kennion, c. 1807, based on a cloud study by Luke Howard (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The clue is in the sky, which represents ‘Cumulus breaking up; cirrus and cirrocumulus above’. These were the new names for the clouds, created by the meteorologist Luke Howard.

Portrait of Luke Howard by John Opie

Luke Howard, by the leading society portrait painter John Opie, c. 1807 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Howard was a commercial chemist who rose to fame after lecturing “On the Modification of Clouds” in 1802 to the Askesian Society, a scientific club founded by three young London Quakers. He proposed that, rather than being fleeting and innumerable, clouds could be reduced to just three families: cumulus, stratus and cirrus. Combinations were possible and clouds could change from one type to another. Howard was hailed as a genius who had grasped the clouds and brought them within the reach of science.

Cumulus, by Luke Howard

Cumulus in high wind, c. 1803, by Luke Howard. Howard used sketches to illustrate his talk and publications (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Amongst artists his reception was mixed. The German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, for example, worried that ‘to force the free and airy clouds into a rigid order and classification’ would damage their expressive potential and even ‘undermine the whole foundation of landscape painting’.

John Constable disagreed, arguing that ’Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’ His cloud experiments have fascinated critics ever since.

British Rail poster, 1990

British Rail poster, 1990. Constable's cloudy landscapes have become emblematic of the British countryside. (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Station clock meets its Waterloo

No sooner do I write a blog about the symbolism of Waterloo’s station clock than it gets taken out of service for a refurbishment!

Waterloo station clock under repair, London, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

The concourse underneath the Waterloo clock has become an iconic meeting-place, a focal point amidst the hurry of the station, as shown in Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting:

Waterloo station, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Now, for a few weeks, time stands still for the station’s passengers.

Waiting under the Waterloo station clock, 25 March 2010 (David Rooney)

Railways run on time. In the early days, time was a life-saver – literally – as trains used the tracks on a time-share arrangement. The wrong time on the guard’s watch could kill.

Railway guard's watch and railway timetable, 19th century (NRM / Science & Society)

Nowadays, the railways get their time from a constellation of US military satellites (the same ones that tell you where to go while driving), or through a radio signal broadcast from Anthorn, a remote spit of land on the Cumbria coast.

The Cumbrian signal is Britain’s official national time signal. It’s called MSF and it’s run for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory by VT Communications, part of a firm that used to be called Vosper Thornycroft. I’ve mentioned them before. They’ve a long history of shipbuilding.

And they’ve just merged with Babcock, a company that started life making marine steam boilers. The MSF time signal and its predecessors began as an Admiralty service for British naval officers to check their chronometers at sea.

Transport and time – two stories intertwined. But I recommend you take your own watch to Waterloo for the next few weeks…

Docks, yachts and more than one box

I’m off to the London boat show tomorrow. It’s being held at an exhibition centre beside an old dock in east London, so there’s plenty of water to show off  the yachts.

I truly love that part of London. Not so long ago, the docklands area was teeming with maritime activity, but now it’s mostly pleasure craft occupying the spaces left behind when the working docks moved down-river to places like Tilbury. But just fifty years ago, Londoners were much closer to their ships, as were the residents of other port cities.

I’ll not dwell on that story right now. Instead, let me show you this terrific painting. It’s one of a set made in 1963 to hang on the end walls of our then-new Shipping Galleries, and they’re still in place if you’d like to see them in the flesh. They’re huge! This one shows mechanical handling at the dockside, 1960s-style:

Mechanical handling at the docks, 1963 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Mechanical handling at the docks', 1963 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

That was the height of modernity back then, but in the subsequent half-century, everything’s changed. Here’s your homework. To dip your toe into the modern maritime world, grab a copy of Marc Levinson’s recent book, The Box: how the shipping container made the world smaller and the world economy bigger. Believe me, it’s a very interesting story.

More on all this another day, but in the meantime, if you’re interested in a rather left-field take on rivers, docklands and the future, you might like this free event I’m involved with on 1 February at our Dana Centre, called ‘Time and the Moon’. I’ll be talking with others about how the Moon is a common thread linking places, people and periods. Maybe see you there?