THE Museum’s collection of engravings and other printed ephemera is one of its underrated treasures. The collection is diverse, having been accumulated from different sources over the years. It contains much that is unique and much of significant historical provenance, such as prints from the collection of the Radcliffe Observatory, a collection that was created in the early nineteenth century by Stephen Rigaud, Professor of Astronomy at Oxford, and was one of the first of its kind, with material relating to astronomy, physics and related sciences.
The Museum’s collection as a whole holds many curiosities and surprises and often has the superficial appearance of incoherence. However, on closer inspection it is clear that within it many coherent histories are there waiting to be revealed. One such history, which illustrates an interesting episode in the iconography of science, begins with a famous print of which the Museum has several examples: Sébastien Leclerc’s 1698 engraving L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts.
Leclerc’s engraving does not represent any particular institution. It does, however, illustrate activities that took place in two seventeenth-century Paris academies: painting and sculpture at the Académie de peinture et de sculpture, and astronomy, botany, zoology and mechanics at the Académie des sciences. Leclerc was associated with both institutions: he was engraver to the Académie des sciences and was Professor of Perspective at the Académie de peinture et de sculpture.
For the engraving, Leclerc used some material drawn directly from previous work done for the two academies, but the origins of other elements of the design, such as the antique architecture and costumes, and the reference to Raphael’s School of Athens, cannot be identified so precisely. Still others, such as the representation of ‘Theologia’, the magician reading the palm of a young man, and an anamorphosis of a skull (with its reference to vanity), give a mystical aspect to the engraving. These elements are more closely associated with a book Leclerc was to publish at the end of his life, Le Nouveau système du monde conforme à l’Ecriture sainte où les phénomènes sont expliqués sans excentricité, which appeared in 1706.
L’Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts was dedicated to Louis XIV and was probably made expressly to please the king, who supported the French academies and had, of course, a privileged relationship with the institutions of the church. Moreover Leclerc’s art was in keeping with the taste of the time. He was the most collected engraver of his day and numerous imitations were made of the 1698 engraving.
Leclerc’s engraving, as the English version above shows, is representative of the whole range of arts and sciences pursued in the late seventeenth century and as such was singularly appropriate for the frontispiece of an encyclopaedia, so it comes perhaps as little surprise to find it being put to such use.
The first instance of the engraving’s use in an encyclopaedia occurs with Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, published in London in 1728. Although no credit is given to Leclerc, the frontispiece is an inverted copy of his engraving, the mirror-image resulting from a new engraver copying the original on to a copper plate. Some small modifications have been added during the copying process: the young man in the original having his palm read, for example, is now reluctant to give his hand to the magician, indicating that the power of magic was contested by the 1720s.
Why was a French engraving used as a frontispiece for a British encyclopaedia? Part of the answer lies in Chambers’ particular interest in the work of Leclerc, whose Treatise of Architecture he had translated into English in 1714. Chambers’ training under the well-known map and globe maker John Senex may further explain his inclination to select an engraving showing so many scientific instruments as the frontispiece of his encyclopaedia.
Chambers also had a special link with France and the Paris Académie des sciences, since he translated Jean Dubreuil’s Practice of Perspective and co-operated with John Martyn in publishing the Philosophical History and Memoirs of the Royal Academy of Sciences, an abridged translation of papers on natural philosophy by members of the Académie.
For the engraving for the English translation of Leclerc’s Treatise of Architecture, Chambers collaborated with the engraver John Sturt. Sturt, who was often employed for this type of work, was extremely industrious and executed illustrations for many religious and artistic publications of the time. Since Chambers had used Sturt for this work, it is not sur prising to find that Leclerc’s Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts was also engraved by Sturt for the Cyclopaedia.
The use of Leclerc’s engraving in Chambers’ encyclopaedia seems to have been the beginning of a genre. In 1788, modified vignettes from the same engraving were used in the frontispieces of the three-volume New Royal Encyclopaedia compiled by George Selby Howard. Descriptions are given with the frontispieces and in the first volume, where the illustration is the closest to Leclerc’s engraving, royalty is again central, theology is represented, and the teaching of the arts and sciences is emphasized.
The commentary with the frontispiece to the first volume (illustrated below) reads as follows:
"Explanation. Royalty is represented in this Elegant Frontispiece standing by a Globe and attending to a Person who is giving Instructions in the Science of Astronomy, &c. On the right hand side are Sages skilled in the Mathematics, explaining a Geometrical Problem to a Learner of that Art. On the left side is represented Heraldry. In the middle two persons are making Experiments on the Air Pump. In the background is delineated a variety of Proficients and pupils attending the Studies of Printing, Designing, Fortification, Optics, Measuring, Anatomy, Surgery, Theology, Hydrolics, Hydrostatics, Navigation, Statuary, &c. In the upper part is a Magnificent Building, denoting Architecture, an Engine for raising Weights, &c. In the foreground is a promiscuous Group of Philosophical Instruments respecting different Arts and Sciences as, Music, Coins, Medals, Magic Lantern, Protracter, Caliber, &c. &c."
The link between Chambers’ Cyclopaedia and Howard’s New Royal Encyclo paedia is explained in the title to the latter: ‘The New Royal Encyclo paedia, and Cyclopaedia; or Complete Dictionary of Arts and Sciences … Containing the Substances (in Systematical and Alphabetical Order) of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the French Encyclopedia’.
Leclerc’s engraving did not find its way into the Encyclopaedia Britan nica until the third edition, published in 1797. The version reproduced there was engraved by Andrew Bell, with Leclerc cited as ‘inventor’. Bell was not only an engraver, but had become the sole proprietor of the Encyclopaedia in 1793. Bell added some elements of contemporary relevance, such as a balloon, while excising some others, theology and the anamorphosis among them. In so doing, the moral aspect of the engraving was lost to some extent, while modern discoveries were accentuated.
The ‘French Encyclopaedia’, Diderot and d’Alembert’s huge Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers published in seventeen volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates between 1751 and 1772, did not use Leclerc’s engraving, despite the fact that it was inspired by Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. As a member of the Académie des sciences, d’Alembert would certainly have been familiar with Leclerc’s engraving, but by the 1750s, some elements, such as magic, represented activities repudiated by the Académie. These seem not to have embarrassed Chambers, even though he was a member of the Royal Society, but it is well known that the French Encyclopédie was more strongly opposed to traditional learning than its British model.
It would appear that, among many different British, continental and American encyclopaedias published during the eighteenth century, only the three examples referred to here – Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, the New Royal Encyclopaedia and the Encyclopaedia Britannica – have Leclerc’s engraving, making its use a purely British phenomenon.
Chambers’ particular interest in Leclerc’s works, and the strong influence of Chambers on both Howard and Bell, must have had a significant localizing effect. Beyond this, although the Académie des sciences et des beaux-arts was based on actual activities connected with the arts and sciences, it was also an allegorical piece which accentuated the roles of king, morality and religion in learning, qualities not necessarily compatible with the philosophy of every encyclopaedist.