Laura Ashby chats with “Eccentricity” co-curator Tony Simcock
Laura: So Tony, what’s it all about, eccentricity?
Tony: D’you mean eccentricity or “Eccentricity”?
L: Take your pick.
T: Well Laura, eccentricity turns out to be a bit like “Eccentricity” – or vice versa – when you see it it’s obvious what it is, when you describe it it’s a bit less clear, when you try to define it it goes all mushy. It slips right through your fingers.
L: Try anyway.
T: I’ll tell you one characteristic, that keeps cropping up. You must have noticed how it keeps swinging between poignance and panto …
L: I have indeed. But you’d better explain what you mean anyway.
T: You laugh and then you cry. You’ve no sooner convinced yourself that something’s completely ridiculous than you realise it’s saved the world. It’s the very opposite, it’s undiculous.
L: You’re not allowed to make words up, by the way.
T: Take Joseph Wright for instance. We introduced him in an amusing way – must have been a practical joke, bringing this chap with a broad Yorkshire accent to teach philology at Oxford. And accepting him because he was a great pipe smoker. But before long we had a lump in the throat – at least I hope we did …
L: I couldn’t swallow for a fortnight.
T: Picturing a man who started his career aged 6 as a donkey boy in a quarry, rising to become an Oxford professor and one of the most eminent linguistic scholars of his day. We note how Jevons’s logical piano was ridiculed, and, like Babbage’s difference and analytical engines, was a complete failure … then we remind ourselves that they are the forerunners of the computer, which means that the men who thought of these ideas and were once figures of ridicule must now rank as founders of the modern world. We make mild fun of dear old Lewis Carroll’s system of logic and the idea that it can be worked out as an equation in algebra; but that’s part of what modern computers do do.
L: Dee-doo do dee-doo.
T: And ravenous old Buckland, with his panther pie and mouse in batter, was the geologist who founded the subject of ecology – the study of living things with reference to their environment – and pushed back the boundaries of creation beyond the old wisdom of 4004 BC, ready for Darwin to step in with millions of years of evolution. So. Are they geniuses or nutcases?
L: Or, are geniuses all a tad eccentric?
T: OR – is eccentricity necessary, like curiosity and memory and oxygen? Necessary to big-brained bipeds, necessary to human intellectual progress, and thus to evolution a million years back and to science in recent centuries.
L: Cool – this is getting …
T: I know, you thought you were interviewing Edna Everage and you got Jonathan Miller instead.
T: The whole exhibition’s been like that. And that’s what I mean. The moment you see how ridiculous something is, it turns serious. The moment you think you’ve spotted a bit of pure eccentricity, you realise there’s method in the madness. Take Daubeny’s monkeys …
L: No thanks.
T: Even though he was ridiculously short and bespectacled and obviously had a very squeaky voice, Daubeny had a serious philosophy that science or anyway science teaching or anyway science teaching in Oxford or anyway science teaching in Oxford colleges …
L: [the look says it all]
T: Or anyway science teaching at Magdalen College, should be comprehensive and broadly based; so although he was a chemist and botanist himself, he introduced physics and meteorology and zoology – that’s the monkeys – and astronomy and geology etc into his teaching. He installed a big telescope at the Botanic Garden – you’ll probably say he was looking for life on other PLANTS!
L: I was going to say, looking for plant-life in space.
T: Mmm, better leave the jokes to me then.
T: But monkeys in a cage are a lot funnier than telescopes …
L: Especially when they escape …
T: But you see Daubeny’s monkeys and telescope were doing the same thing – they were expanding the curriculum.
L: No, you’ll never make expanding the curriculum seem funny.
T: That’s it. And several of our lecturers have bravely tried to define eccentricity or an eccentric, and its place in society or in science. It’s a tough assignment. Brian Regal’s conclusion that science and the world NEEDS people who waste their lives in quest of the non-existent Abominable Snowman is sort of sad, perhaps, more than funny. For that’s the point where eccentricity evaporates, or slips through your fingers.
L: Like old Bigfoot himself.
T: And you know Laura, it’s been doing this throughout the exhibition. You think you see it, shadowyly, on the hillside – you focus in – and it’s gone. Puff! It’s a puff of snow blown off the horizon by a distant breeze.
L: So it gets us nowhere?
T: Ah but we never intended – I don’t think we did anyway – to raise a debate about the nature of BEING a scientist or of intellectual evolution or of scientific discovery. Yet there it was, a big hairy footprint in the snow, a profound debate about these things appears to exist. We didn’t really intend to make fun of our heroes and heroines. Yet there they were, as soon as our backs were turned, pulling funny faces at us …
L: Or farting.
T: Laughter’s extremely good for the brain by the way.
L: Save me a bottle.
T: And I’m sure we didn’t intend the exhibition to be about eccentricity.
L: What was it meant to be about then?
T: I’m glad you asked me that. Because there IS something that’s hardly been raised at all, something absolutely fundamental, and it’s got nothing or little to do with eccentricity, and almost – almost – tempts me to say that everyone’s missed the point. But I won’t say that …
L: Oh go on.
T: Because every point of view is valid, and indeed a characteristic of something’s worth is its depth – its capability of accommodating multiple levels of meaning or relevance. It’s only, well, for my part, I wish that more people who came around museums were interested in MUSEUMS … You’ll say, what an odd thing to say …
L: What an odd thing to say, Tony!
T: After visitors have poured into our lovely museum and enjoyed and learned from the collections they’ve seen displayed there. But to me the exhibition “Eccentricity” is about the scope and parameters of museum collections. And there’s a big debate there. And we haven’t had it, and we can’t have it now …
L: Oh let’s …
T: No, it’s too big and boring. And d’you know something – it’s probably a good job nobody’s thought of it. Because it’s a debate that could go against us. Nowadays, museums have to write mission statements and collecting policies and even disposal policies. And donors have to sign legal transfer documents. And safety officers have to run geiger-counters over things.
L: [raised eyebrows]
T: No, honestly, Soddy’s suitcase was geiger-countered before we put it on display.
L: Get to the point.
T: Hardly anything in the exhibition would be acquired today under today’s collecting policies. Several things came quite accidentally. Burdon Sanderson’s wallet was swept up with miscellanous stuff from the floor of Haldane’s laboratory and bunged in a tea-chest to be sorted out 20 years later. One of the things in the tea-chest was a stale sandwich, which I threw away.
L: Yes, we’ve got that joke somewhere else.
T: It’s no joke Laura. Neither our collecting policy nor our disposal policy says anything about sandwiches or suitcases. Did you know we’ve got King Charles II’s address book?
L: Throw it away!
T: And the world’s oldest collection of birds’ eggs.
L: So why aren’t they in the exhibition?
T: And a melted tile from Hiroshima …
T: From panto to poignance. I wonder whether there shouldn’t be a regular, changing exhibit of an unexpected offbeat treasure from the collections. Because you see I think – and I’m not sure eccentricity was the best word for it – the exhibition was about …
L: The exhibition called “Eccentricity”.
T: Yes. I sort of suspect the exhibition was about the nature of a museum collection. The debate – no, we’ve decided it’s best not to encourage a debate – the generality, the paradigm, the background noise, the footprint in the snow isn’t to do with the eccentricity of historical characters, neither eccentric like nutty nor eccentric like outside the mainstream. It’s to do with eccentricity in serious museum collections. The frilly peripheries of the collections. The crimping machines. The Chinese typewriters. The items in the collection that are way off centre, that don’t conform – nonconformity would have been a better word …
L: That would have pulled the crowds.
T: The things in the collection that don’t conform to any conceivable definition of what we’re about or what we collect AND YET ARE TREASURES EVEN SO. Put that in capital letters.
L: I shall.
T: Poignant treasures. Revealing treasures. Entertaining treasures. Informative treasures. Important treasures even so.
T: Yes, get that word in somehow too. But they’re waifs, they’re all orphans and foundlings, they’re the most fragile parts of the collection. Fragile in terms of the probability of them ever having been saved in a museum at all. Several of the objects in the exhibition we’ve had for decades, but I’ve catalogued them only recently – elevating them to the status of real museum objects. Who was it who said ‘museum objects aren’t just what they are, they are what they’ve become’?
L: You I think.
T: Well there you are then. Soddy’s suitcase is one – an object I elevated from statuslessness I mean – Miss Willmott’s empty lantern-slide box with her name plaque another. Wonderful paradox there – Soddy’s suitcase had no identity as a museum object in its own right because it was just a container, a cardboard box manquee …
L: Can we say substitute?
T: Just a container – it was full of lantern slides. Miss Willmott’s lantern-slide box had no identity as a museum object in its own right because it was empty, it had no lantern slides in it. I like that paradox.
L: Worthless if you’re full of lantern slides and worthless if you’re empty.
T: D’you see what I mean though?
L: Not the faintest.
T: It’s the museum world turned upside-down. The exhibition is SUBVERSIVE. It’s nonconformist. It’s an exhibition curated by levellers. It’s revolutionary. The collection’s most worthless, improbable, unregarded, off-beam, accidental, ex—I nearly said eccentric!
L: Not allowed, miss a turn.
T: Most peripheral most waif-like objects, dusted down and displayed as a collection of priceless fascinating treasures. And it works!
T: It worked. They are! They’re priceless.
L: They are indeed. Well I’m sorry we’ve run out of time now, so thanks a lot Tony.
T: Thankyou Laura. Byebye.
L: Byeee … Now he’s gone I should just add that Tony Simcock’s opinions are not necessarily the opinions or policies of the Museum of the History of Science or of Oxford University. To be honest – I suspect he’s a little eccentric …
On Sir John Hippisley (1748-1825)
The Eccentricity label writer, of course, is much too polite to point out that Sir John Hippisley is farting, or being made to fart (scientifically), in the caricature print by the satirical artist Gillray (in the exhibn, inv no 11538, with picture). Perhaps he wants the visitor to notice the billowing clouds for himself and thus save the trouble of deciding what word should be used in curatorial parlance instead of farting.
I don’t know if he’s also being polite in saying it’s laughing gas, that was certainly all the rage at the time, though Hippisley is not laughing and there’s no ambiguity about the effect the print concentrates upon; Hippisley’s trousers are well exploded and several audience members are holding their noses. It illustrates the subtitle of the print, “an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air”.
New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! - or - an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air.', by James Gillray, London, 1802
Sir John Coxe Hippisley (1748-1825) was an Oxford-educated barrister, a politician and diplomat and member of parliament, one of the governers of the Royal Institution (where the demonstration in the print is taking place), a patron of science, and a leading westcountry gent : all told, a very busy and distinguished man — definitely the sort of chap you want to see farting, or being made to fart (scientifically). One of the scientists he patronised was his own much younger wife, Elizabeth Ann, nee Horner, who was something of an amateur chemist and mineralogist, and a collector of geological and mineral specimens. I suspect she stayed in the fresh air of the country while he was farting about… I mean being a very busy man in London… and so he encouraged her to keep out of mischief by pursuing this hobby, and got several of his scientific friends (like Humphry Davy, Charles Hatchett, and William Allen) to send her specimens or write her letters containing advice. We have these letters in the Museum’s manuscript collection.
the Museum actually has a number of things connected with Hippisley, if a little tangentially, because the first Curator R. T. Gunther got to know the Horner family, Hippisley’s wife’s relatives, and with Gunther’s typical magpieishness acquired both for himself and for the Museum a very mixed bag of things from them. Notably he purchased Lady Hippisley’s geological and mineral collection, and although he sold the collection on, he kept the original papers that were with it, which eventually came to the Museum with Gunther’s archives. Directly for the Museum he acquired some chemical apparatus from the private laboratory at the Horners’ house, Mells Park, Somerset, which had probably been used by Lady H, though several other 19th-century members of the Horner family were scientists too. He also possessed a quantity of political and electioneering papers of Sir John Hippisley, which are also now the property of the Museum, though of course of no relevance to us. They are on permanent deposit at the record office in Ipswich, which is where his constituency was when he was an MP.
There’s another eccentric story behind the print: one of the museum’s versions of it has Hippisley’s famous fart cut away, and replaced by something less cloudy-looking (a vain and pointless exercise, since the idea that you can disguise a real trouser-ripping ‘hippisley’ [as they’ll be known hereafter] is as well-known a fallacy as a chinese-typewriter) – actually the inset looked even more disgusting than what it was meant to replace! Obviously some previous owner was as delicate in his sensitivities about such things as our esteemed colleague; BUT, as I understand it, when our Collections Manager some time ago came to take this doctored print out of its frame, lo and behold beautifully preserved beneath it was a second copy intact, with colours and fart as fresh as the day they were done (and, I think she said, a sort of kind of faint fleeting could-it-possibly-really-be whiff of something, just momentarily, as she lifted the cover). This perfect version is (I believe) the one being used in the exhibition. The Collections Manager’s inventory entry for it also, rather coyly, mentions neither Hippisley nor his fart.
As a classicist (well I was once, at school) I should have known better than to coin the word “omniphagous”, a hybrid of Latin and Greek; since you’re too busy to put me in detention I’ll do it myself (later); yes of course, it should be polyphagous, Herschel would be ashamed of me.
Battered mouse, I understand, was a staple in the Buckland household; hippophagy was certainly indulged in; and there must be some way of working in coprophagy, though I’ve no definite information that he tried it. Buckland’s son Frank (who you’ll be astonished to learn grew up to be rather eccentric) once boasted of having had panther chops for dinner, explaining that the panther had been buried several days before they realised what a waste that was, and had it exhumed and cooked.
Silhouette of Dr William Buckland and his family at home - polishing off a midnight feast?
Yet funnily enough the guinea-pigs roamed free, the house was full of them; and a pony that trotted round the dining room; and an eagle that swooped into the cathedral during service one time.
Talking of eccentric eating, was it Hooke or Greatorex who tasted the liquid found in the coffins of St Martin in the Fields during the rebuilding of London? no matter
And our own Robert T Gunther (one time Keeper of the MHS) who suggested the Botanic Garden should be turned to growing “patriotic cabbages” during the First World War; there we are, back to vegetables again …
On The Very Revd. Dr William Buckland (1784-1856); Geologist, Palaeontologist and Eater.
Eccentric eating is always good for a laugh. The Museum library contains a book with the charming title of “Hippophagy”, a serious study of the eating of horses in classical times.
One of our eccentrics, William Buckland, was omniphagous; the following paragraph is merely a quote from the exhibition label.
William Buckland giving a lecture in the Middle Gallery of the Museum
>>>The geologist William Buckland (1784–1856) had a reputation for eccentricity. His lectures in this building were well-attended, lively occasions, with Buckland moving around his specimens and large maps, telling jokes and imitating the gait of extinct animals. He dressed oddly and carried a large blue bag where he kept such items as mammoth teeth, hyena skulls and fossil faeces, which he enjoyed producing in senior common rooms and at dinner parties.
He loved eating unusual meat, such as crocodile, hedgehog, mole, mouse, puppy and ostrich. According to the writer Augustus Hare, he was once shown ‘the heart of a French King preserved at Nuneham in a silver casket. Dr. Buckland, whilst looking at it, exclaimed, “I have eaten many strange things, but have never eaten the heart of a king before,” and, before anyone could hinder him, he had gobbled it up, and the precious relic was lost for ever.’<<<
One might also regard the Harcourt family of Nuneham as eccentric for wishing to preserve the heart of a French king there in a silver casket ; the moral of course is, wait until after dinner before showing people your treasures.
J. S. Haldane (mentioned in an earlier entry), who being a physiologist was not in the least bit squeamish, once served a black pudding he had made out of his own blood.
Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Mathematician and Author
On Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), Mathematician, Logician, Deacon – 1832-1898
Charles Dodgson published creative, comical, and ciddy [sic.] writings under the name of Lewis Carroll, but Lewis Carroll published serious mathematical works under the name of Charles Dodgson, which I think he got from his parents. One of them was a book called “Symbolic Logic” (1896), a serious mainstream work on mathematical logic.
So without further ado, here’s his sytem of “symbolic logic” or “syllogistic logic”, which I’m sure is best explained by quoting one of the author’s own examples of the “sets of concrete propositions” capable of algebraic analysis leading to an answer or “conclusion”.
It IS a rather complicated one, admittedly, but with algebraic logical syllogisms it’s always best to start with a complicated one (don’t you find?) and work back:
(1) Every idea of mine [Charles Dodgson, that is], that cannot be expressed as a syllogism, is really ridiculous
(2) None of my ideas about Bath-buns are worth writing down
(3) No idea of mine, that fails to come true, can be expressed as a syllogism
(4) I never have any really ridiculous idea, that I do not at once refer to my solicitor
(5) My dreams are all about bath-buns
(6) I never refer any idea of mine to my solicitor, unless it is worth writing down
The universal given or subject of this is his idea; the algebra uses ‘a’ to mean able to be expressed as a syllogism, ‘b’ to mean about bath-buns, ‘c’ to mean coming true, ‘d’ to mean dreams, ‘e’ to mean really ridiculous, ‘h’ to mean referred to his solicitor, and ‘k’ to mean worth writing down
The answer (or logical conclusion or inference from these premisses) is of course:
All my dreams come true
You’d have got it sooner if you’d have had a logical piano, of course. Bath-buns, I must hasten to add, are tasty buns made in Bath, Somerset
Now you’ve mastered symbolic logic, see how simple his first example seems:
(1) Babies are illogical
(2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile
(3) Illogical persons are despised
The mind fully trained in Dodgson’s symbolic logic will see instantly, even without doing the algebra, that
Babies cannot manage crocodiles
Which is indeed the correct answer or logical inference.
on Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (otherwise known as Lewis Carroll) 1832-1898
Photograph of Annie Rogers and Mary Jackson as Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund, by C. L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), July 3, 1863
Little girls befriended and photographed by Charles Dodgson (otherwise know as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) included Ellen Terry, who went on to become one of the finest actresses of her generation; Sarah Angelina Acland, who became the most skilled early practitioner of colour photography in its pioneering years, and was awarded honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society for it; Annie Rogers, who became Oxford’s first female don and a leading figure in establishing equality of opportunities for women in higher education; and most famous of all, Alice Liddell, who went on to become … Mrs Hargreaves.
A good few of the victims of his camera grew up to be strong and independently-minded women, and none of them ever needed psychotherapy; though at the age of 80 Mrs Hargreaves confessed to being “tired of being Alice in Wonderland”.
Women’s education was something Lewis Carroll believed in and pressed for, as well as proportional representation and a fairer political voting system …
The image is of Annie Rogers and Mary Jackson as Queen Eleanor and the Fair Rosamund, 1863. Carroll sent Annie a copy of the photograph along with this poem:
My dear Annie,
I send you
A picture, which I hope will
B one that you will like to
C. If your Mamma should
D sire one like it, I could
E sily get her one.
Your affectionate friend,
C. L. Dodgson.
More information about the photograph and the story of Fair Rosamund.