Phrenology busts to papier-mâché botanicals: a new book exploring a collection of 19th-century life science teaching tools is as strange as it is beautiful
Who? The tipping point for George Loudon, a prolific contemporary art collector who, over two decades, had amassed some 700 works by 250 artists, was when he ran out of his space. That was 15 years ago, and when Loudon turned his attention to science and smaller, though no less fascinating, objects. Observing that many artists were interested in science, he began to read up on the subject and visit natural history museums. It was on a visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History that Loudon saw the “eye opening” Blaschka glass botanical models. “They made me realise that there were objects made in the 19th-century to convey scientific knowledge that were also very beautiful: art, or nearly art,” he explains. Thus began Loudon’s collection of life science teaching tools and curiosities; think specimens, books, illustrations and models. A lack of specialist dealers means the collection has been painstakingly gathered by trawling auction catalogues and museum storages, “I don’t think you have to be obsessive to be a collector,” he says, “But it helps!”
What? Today Loudon’s collection of 19th-century life science teaching tools comprises over 200 items. These form the basis of his new book Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences. Although there are some freakish objects – like the taxidermy conjoined piglets or a magnificently monstrous toad – these aren’t illustrative of the collection, which favours the representative over the singular (although as an independent collector, Loudon has the freedom to include whatever takes his fancy. A two-faced kitten for instance? Sure, why not?). Some of Loudon’s personal collection highlights include the Chinese face reading model, "which seems to say so much about traditional Chinese culture and about what happened to that in the last hundred years," and George Simpson’s elaborately researched, but ultimately meaningless, meteorological reports that incorrectly predicted the weather conditions for Scott’s ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole in 1913.
Why? Inspired by the book his friend, photography dealer and gallerist Michael Hoppen, had produced about his own collection, Object Lessons is a visual feast. Alongside Loudon’s explanatory collection notes, a conversation between himself and curator Lynne Cooke, and an essay by Robert McCracken Peck, are specially commissioned photographs by Rosamond Wolff Purcell, which allow us to see the items in the close-up detail that they were originally intended to be viewed (rather that behind glass in a museum).
Loudon says he doesn’t choose items to fit a predetermined story he has in mind but rather acquires pieces with the aesthetic drive of an art collector. And yet, as diverse as these curiosities are, it is possible to apply a narrative and wider, uniting context to them: namely that they encapsulate an intriguing pre-industrial moment when scientific discovery was rapidly developing (and capturing the zeitgeist), but technology couldn’t keep pace with this snowballing knowledge. So these little objects represent something much bigger, the physical manifestation of the fascinating intersection between art and science (a dichotomy which provided rich fodder for the Romantics during this period).
Over time, these items have lost their pedagogical function and can now be viewed from a fresh perspective and appreciated as objects of odd but beguiling beauty. And, that some of these pieces – the delicate insect specimens, the intricate detail of a bisected human head, the weird embrace of those conjoined piglets – call to mind some of the contemporary artists Loudon originally collected is surely proof that, sometimes, reality really is stranger than fiction.
Object Lessons: The Visualisation of Nineteenth-Century Life Sciences is out now, published by Ridinghouse.