Faces of Science

Ludmilla Jordanova looks at the ways in which scientists presented themselves and their activities to the public through art, and considers how this reflects on the public presentation of history.

Portraits of scientists have a long and complex history, uniting art and science, past and present. They also bring diverse constituencies into fruitful conversations: historians, sitters, artists, collectors and patrons, the staff of museums, those who run scientific institutions and ‘the public’, itself a complex and elusive term, which includes engaged citizens, persons on the street, and those who consider themselves privileged commentators on contemporary politics.


Practitioners of science, technology and medicine have explored their public faces for several centuries. The Royal Society of London, founded in 1660, and one of the world’s most prestigious scientific organizations, has assembled an important collection of portraits. Those who use the Society’s building, which is garlanded with images, are surrounded by the ‘public faces’ of Fellows and key players in the history of science. We might see such portraits as templates, some of which are reproduced, adapted and disseminated way beyond the Society’s walls. Indeed there are many ways in which those who study the natural world come to the attention of the public. For example, the famous debate at the Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1860 between ‘Darwin’s bulldog’ Thomas Huxley and Bishop Wilberforce, ‘Soapy Sam’, about evolution, was widely commented upon and caricatured, capturing the public imagination. Complex ideas were thereby brought to the attention of wide audiences. Science was already popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and, as they became available, new genres and media, such as cartoons and photographs, were quickly mobilized, making the faces of prominent figures, such as Charles Darwin, generally familiar.


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