Coalbrookdale by Night

Coalbrookdale by Night 1801

Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740–1812)

Science Museum

Art Matters is the podcast that brings together pop culture and art history, hosted by Ferren Gipson.

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There’s a common belief that people are either left or right-brained thinkers – logical or creative. The idea is that the left hemisphere of the brain controls analytical thought while the right controls artistic ability. According to this theory, people fall into one category or the other, and this explains their natural talents and inclinations. A 2013 study shows that people use both hemispheres of the brain, and it’s possible to have an aptitude in, say, art and science.

With this notion of art and science being opposites, I thought it would be interesting to think about art found in scientific spaces. ‘I don’t think I actually see my role as any different to the other curators’, says Katy Barrett, Curator of Art Collections at the Science Museum, London. ‘We’re all working with interesting objects that have histories that are visual and material and technical. And we’re all interested in those objects having cultural context, so I suppose it’s just the proportion of the visual versus the technical that we’re looking at differently... Both the history of science and the history of art are essentially interested in how objects and knowledge are culturally constructed.’

The museum includes an incredible assortment of objects, from room-sized computers to space suits, so I was interested to know the museum’s perspective on the relationship between art and science, and the role that art plays in the wider Science Museum Group collection.

‘We think about very broadly – possibly the term ‘visual culture’ might be a better way of thinking about it because our art collections range from paintings to stamps to cigarette cards to sculpture. So there’s a real range of material’, says Katy. ‘The collections aren’t about making science accessible or visualising it – they’re really about how art and science have informed each other.’

One example of this relationship in the museum’s collection is the painting Coalbrookdale by Night, by Philip James de Loutherbourg (above). The nineteenth-century painting shows the night sky lit up by fire and smoke, and is set near the area that is considered the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. The painting was acquired by the Science Museum in 1952, and caused controversy amongst its curators regarding how accurately it represented the process of metallurgy. The director of the museum at the time felt that the painting would complement the other objects in the metallurgy department and inform the cultural context of the Industrial Revolution.

There are many occasions where artists use art as a way of accurately representing their scientific ideas. Leonardo da Vinci is a classic example of a polymath who, in addition to being a gifted painter and architect, kept journals of his studies in anatomy and engineering. One could argue that his artistic skills helped facilitate his scientific explorations.


Sunspot 1860

James Nasmyth (1808–1890)

Science Museum

Solar Spot

Solar Spot 1864

James Nasmyth (1808–1890)

Science Museum

Within the Science Museum Group collection, there are many similar examples of this relationship between art and science, some of which will feature in the museum’s exhibition on the sun. Katy told me about two pieces by James Nasmyth, a Scottish engineer and inventor of the steam hammer, in which he used painting as a tool to represent his findings about the surface of the sun. ‘He was the son of landscape painter Alexander Nasmyth, and after [James] made his fortune in industry in Manchester, [he] retired to work on astronomy and art. He focused, particularly, on his interest on the surface of the moon and the surface of the sun.’ Nasmyth was the first person to recognise and visualise the idea that the surface of the sun is uneven – what we now refer to as a granulated surface.

Krakatau Volcano, Ngantang, Java

Krakatau Volcano, Ngantang, Java 1876

Marianne North (1830–1890)

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Sunset and Afterglow, Krakatoa, 9 November 1883

Sunset and Afterglow, Krakatoa, 9 November 1883

1883, oil on board by William Ascroft

Staying on the topic of the sun, there’s another artist who used art as a way of documenting sunsets and the atmospheric effects of a major nineteenth-century event. ‘In 1883, Krakatoa, the volcano, erupted and caused a huge amount of particulate matter to be in the atmosphere for a good two or three years after the eruption, which made really spectacular sunsets appear all over the world,’ says Katy. ‘William Ascroft was particularly interested in the kind of palette that appeared in these sunsets and trying to have a scientific understanding of the colours that he was seeing.’ Ascroft produced over 500 works from his observations, and scientists from the Royal Society published a report on the eruption using his works as the most accurate illustration of the after-effects of the eruption.



1849, pen & watercolour by Edward Kennion

It’s fascinating that these pastels now serve as a record capturing a specific event in history. Just as art can be used to document information, it can also be used to represent new ideas. On long-term loan to the collection are a series of watercolours by Luke Howard in which he categorised clouds. He created several paintings and grouped them under the names that we still use today.

When it comes to commissioning new works for the collection, the museum likes to take an open-minded approach that looks beyond some of the more obvious links one might think about. ‘It’s not always specifically about a way of making people think about science – sometimes it’s a good opportunity to bring in voices that are missing from the collection. Last year, we had a season called 'Illuminating India', and we commissioned the artist Chila Kumari Burman to create a series of pieces around that, that were broadly responding to Indian science and culture in the exhibition.’

It’s interesting to hear different approaches to melding the disciplines of art and science. It’s clearly not a matter of left- or right-brain thinking – there can be a symbiotic relationship between artistic creativity and scientific exploration.

'The Sun: Living With Our Star' opens at the Science Museum, London on 6 October and runs through 6 May 2019. There’s also a book for the exhibition titled The Sun: One Thousand Years of Scientific Imagery wherein you can view beautiful imagery pertaining to the science of the sun.

Be sure to listen to the full episode of this podcast in the player above for more, or via your favourite podcast provider.

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