In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined the virtuoso as ‘a man skilled in antique or natural curiosities; a man studious of painting, statuary, or architecture’. Johnson's inclusion of ‘natural curiosities’ is noteworthy, Hanson argues, because it marks a change in culture that had occurred during the previous 150 years—precisely the period covered by The English virtuoso—a change facilitated in large part by the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. Originating from the early-seventeenth-century idea that one aspect of ‘virtue’ was the capacity to choose good, particularly with respect to the visual arts, virtue increasingly became associated with those polymaths whose interests included the arts, medicine and antiquarianism. They were the virtuosi. During the early years of the Royal Society, medical practitioners constituted the largest occupational group among its members, and they, Hanson points out, had a professional stake in attaining virtuosity. Physicians were working with the same basic tools as the corner quack, so it was in the doctor's interests to distinguish himself through his erudition, thereby gaining his patient's trust. There were inevitably pitfalls for the unwise. Too much learning could seem like pedantry; too much collecting could supplant understanding. It is upon medical virtuosi that Hanson focuses.
The early Royal Society's interest in architecture, painting, sculpture and printmaking had roots not just in the interests of its founding members but in Francis Bacon's plan (New Organon, 1620) to produce a vast History of Trades, which should collate all that was known about both natural resources and manufactured goods. Many Fellows were involved in the project, but Hanson describes in detail John Evelyn's exploration of topics ranging from engraving and printmaking to forestry and architecture. But Evelyn and his peers were faced by a continuing dilemma: how could they maintain their status as philosophers—their intellectual credibility—if they reduced trades, medicine and the arts to sets of mechanical principles? Hanson uses this tension between rationalism and empiricism, which ran throughout the period, as a major theme for his book.
Although a previous knowledge of art history, particularly of philosophies of representing the human body, would be of considerable advantage to the reader, the narrative is connected by the lives of doctors whose names will already be familiar to anyone with an interest in the history of science. Thus, William Harvey, who is introduced in chapter 1 dealing with the early Stuart court, was not only personal physician to Charles I but also a connoisseur of fine art, who accompanied the Duke of Arundel on art-collecting tours of Europe and was in 1636 sent to Rome to acquire paintings for the king. When John Evelyn was a student in Italy in the 1640s, he purchased four wooden panels on which were displayed actual human veins, arteries and nerves. Donated to the young Royal Society in 1667, the panels were seen as works of art as much as tools for learning and teaching. Even in 1702 Evelyn was still stressing their literal, static qualities. The conflict between rationalism and empiricism is illuminated through an account of the personal war between Dr John Woodward and Dr Richard Mead, the former drawing on the accumulated wisdom and reputation represented by his collection of ancient texts, the latter relying on observation and practical efficacy, although at the risk of straying into quackery. In spite of his attitude to medicine, Mead was a prodigious antiquary who at his death owned 180 works by 90 artists and was responsible, with Hans Sloane and others (notably William Hogarth), for establishing London's Foundling Hospital (the first public art gallery in Britain). It was Sloane's collection of plants, animals, coins and other antiquities that formed the first core of the British Museum (1753) and, later, the Natural History Museum, just as John Radcliffe's library formed the core of Oxford University's Radcliffe Camera.
Thankfully, the concentrated and demanding text—liberally sprinkled with arcane language—is lightened by 10 excellent colour plates, including several of Evelyn's panels, and 62 black and white figures, just a few of which suffer from either their unsuitability for photography or a lack of contrast in printing. With 70 pages of notes, plus references, The English virtuoso informs rather than entertains but it richly rewards the effort that has to be put into its reading.
- © 2010 The Royal Society