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By Rupert Cole on

Maths, models and modernism

On this day in 1889 the Modernist painter Edward Wadsworth was born. Assistant Curator Rupert Cole explores an interaction Wadsworth had with Science Museum objects in the 1930s.

A part of what makes working in the Science Museum’s curatorial team so exciting is the unexpected research journeys objects take you on.

While looking through the files for more information on a fairly fetching, wooden geometrical model, I came across an intriguing letter from 1936.

The Science Museum had written to the model maker to ask if the London Passenger Transport Board (an ancestor of Transport for London) might photograph one of his models for a ‘poster giving publicity to the Science Museum’.

Science Museum mathematical model and Wadsworth's poster design
Science Museum mathematical model and Wadsworth’s poster design

Curiosity provoked, I searched google for an image of this poster (not realising at this stage the Science Museum have the original poster in its collection).

As it transpired, another, even more fetching, mathematical model had been chosen. Sadly the Museum no longer has this one, having returned it to University College London in 2015 after a whopping 139-year loan.

Wadsworth's Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool
Wadsworth’s Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool

The artist commissioned for the work was none other than the well-known Yorkshire Modernist, Edward Wadsworth.

Wadworth originally studied engineering in Munich before switching to art at The Slade in London. He dabbled in several avant garde art movements of the time, such as Futurism and Vorticicm. During the First World War, Wadworth painted allied ships with dazzle camouflage. One of his most famous paintings, ‘Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool’, showed off this nautical look in stunning Voriticist style.

But the model was not the only thing that caught Wadsworth’s attention at the Science Museum. He also painted a model propeller from the Science Museum’s collection, which was the subject of another London Underground poster promoting the South Kensington museums.

Science Museum propeller and Wadsworth's poster design
Science Museum propeller and Wadsworth’s poster design

The Science Museum also has Wadsworth’s original painting of the ship’s propeller – so prized, it once hung in the Director’s office!

The propeller was clearly an influence on Wadsworth’s later work. A series of detached, human-like propellers feature in his 1940 work, ‘Bronze Ballet’, a wonderful depiction of Le Harve harbour that is currently on display in the Tate Britain.

Like Wadsworth, the sculptor Henry Moore was also inspired by the Museum’s mathematics models. Writing in 1968, Moore revealed:

“Undoubtedly the source of my stringed figures was the Science Museum … I was fascinated by the mathematical models I saw there.”

Mathematics and the visual arts have long been close bedfellows. An equation drove Zaha Hadid’s beautiful design aesthetic of the Science Museum’s Mathematics gallery. Come and see for yourself (if you haven’t already).

Wadsworth would surely have been dazzled…

Explore our collection of mathematical objects in our Mathematics gallery and on our collections browser.

Read more about Moore, his Stringed Figure and the Science Museum here.