New College of the Humanities

Genius Eclipsed: The Fate of Robert Boyle

The natural philosopher and scientist Robert Boyle was revered in his time for his pioneering enquiry into a wide range of natural phenomena.Yet within half a century of his death he was almost forgotten, overshadowed by his contemporary Isaac Newton. Michael Hunter explains why.

In April 1733 the Gentleman’s Magazine announced a competition to celebrate the installation of a bust of the natural philosopher, Robert Boyle (1627-91), in the Hermitage, a structure erected in the royal gardens at Richmond by Queen Caroline,wife of George II. The Hermitage was ‘very Gothique, being a Heap of Stones thrown into a very artful Disorder, and curiously embellished with Moss and Shrubs, to represent rude Nature’. Inside it were busts of four contemporary thinkers, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), John Locke (1632-1704), Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) and William Wollaston (1659-1724), and the bust of Boyle represented the finishing touch. It was placed ‘on a pedestal, in the inmost, and, as it were, the most sacred Recess of the Place; behind his Head a large Golden Sun, darting his wide spreading Beams all about, and towards the others, to whom his Aspect is directed’. It was literally Boyle’s apotheosis – the way he was placed in an apse with a sunburst behind him was reminiscent of Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St Teresa’ – and no less striking was the arrangement of the ensemble so that he presided over his peers.

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