Venetian Red Bookshelf: The Age of Wonder

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

William Blake, Urizen as the Creator of the Material World, 1794
title page, Europe, A Prophecy

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes

The Age of Wonder is truly an exhilarating book. Richard Holmes deftly captures the sense of curiosity and wonder about the natural world that inspired the explorers and scientists of the 18th century in their quest for discovery in the face of daunting hardships. The book discusses discoveries in the fields of botany, natural history, astronomy, meteorology and chemistry.

Undated portrait of explorer Mungo Park (1771-1806)

The Age of Wonder isn’t just about science, it’s about culture. Holmes illuminates the work of the scientists, artists and poets of the Romantic Age (1770-1830) and beautifully illustrates how these disciplines were intertwined. The book has a large and engaging cast of characters, including botanist Joseph Banks, astronomers William Herschel, his sister Caroline and son John, explorer Mungo Park, chemist Humphry Davy and doctor Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802).

Amelia Curran, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819
Oil on canvas
National Portrait Gallery, London

These scientists shared a romantic imagination about nature with poets like William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron—and Holmes quotes these poets to great effect in his text. During this intoxicating period of discovery, the writers and poets of the day were as intensely interested in science, as scientists were in the work of the poets. Many of these scientists and poets were also intimate friends, and a few of the scientists also wrote poetry, as did Humphry Davy and Erasmus Darwin. Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, addresses his speculations about evolution in his book-length poem, The Botanic Garden (1791).

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Joseph Banks, 1771-73
Oil on canvas, Private collection

The Age of Wonder pivots on the life of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who used his influence and passion for science to develop a culture in which the scientists and explorers of  the late eighteenth century could flourish. In 1768, Banks, as a young botanist, sailed with Captain James Cook on the Endeavor, making a three-year journey to the South Seas. One of the goals of this voyage was to observe the Transit of Venus on June 3, 1769. Banks also brought back many botanical specimens from the South Seas and the eastern coast of Australia, many of which plants bear his name today. Upon his return, Banks became a life-long friend of King George III, who shared his interest in botany, and in whose many improvements to Kew Gardens, Banks played a large part. In 1781, Banks was knighted for his tremendous accomplishments as Director of Kew Gardens. Banks introduced many exotic species and planted over 50,000 shrubs and trees, transforming it from a rambling estate into a beautiful scientific and botanical paradise.

Camille Pissarro, Kew Gardens, the Path to the Main Greenhouse, 1892
Oil on canvas, Private collection

Banks was elected president of the Royal Society in 1778, a post he held for forty-two years. During his tenure at the Royal Society, he exerted tremendous influence on the work and careers of many giants of the age, including the astronomer William Herschel. One of the interesting points that Holmes makes, is that Banks, like Herschel and others, believed that science was best done by amateurs. For those without private means, Banks helped to obtain backing from King George III and other aristocrats who had an interest in science.

Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries
The first crossing of the English Channel in a hot-air balloon, 1785

While The Age of Wonder explores the link between science and poetry, it also has some interesting things to say about the art of the day. In his chapter on the invention of the hot air balloon, Balloonists in Heaven, Holmes talks about how this invention spawned the new field of meteorology. As well as inspiring the poetry of Coleridge and Shelley, the Romantic Age fascination with the substance and beauty of clouds was influential on the paintings of J. M. W. Turner and John Constable.

J. M. W. Turner, Sunset, 1830-35
Oil on canvas
Tate Gallery, London

John Constable, Weymouth Bay from the Downs Above Osmington Mills, 1816
Oil on canvas
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

There was also an overheated, excessive side to this romantic view of science—the idea of the solitary, obsessed scientist, willing to make a Faustian bargain with the devil in order to unearth the secrets of existence. Aspects of this idea were brought to vivid life in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, written in 1817, when Shelley, the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, was only nineteen years old. Shelley might have been partially inspired by the argument then raging about Vitalism, a doctrine which posited the existence of a Life Force that animates all living creatures. She was perhaps also influenced by accounts of  hideous experiments conducted by Giovanni Aldini to revive dead animals—and human corpses—by applying electrical current. However, in Shelley’s moving book, Frankenstein’s creature was a poetic, lonely philosopher, who laments his fate—not the amoral, wrathful monster of later plays and films.

Theodore Von Holst, frontispiece to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 1831
Steel engraving, Private collection

Perhaps we are approaching another golden age where the great minds of science and art come together, and science is once again viewed as a romantic adventure. In the meantime, I urge you to read Holmes’ engrossing and engaging book about the cultural impact of scientific discovery.  — Christine Cariati

Wider Connections

Interview with computer scientist and author David Gelertner on the interconnection of art science:


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3 Responses to “Venetian Red Bookshelf: The Age of Wonder

  1. Hi Christine,
    Thank you for a wonderful post on the book by Richard Holmes. You have got me excited about reading it.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Nicola, I’m sure you will enjoy it, let me know what you think.
      I’ve always been very interested in the 19th century/Victorian age of discovery, Charles Darwin et al, so really welcomed learning more about the 18th century explorers (poets and scientists) that Holmes writes about. And it certainly made me want to read more of his Romantic-age biographies–the one on Coleridge is next on my list.

  2. The title is a misnomer . I always feel bad when I disagree with those glowing reviews. But in this case, it’s warranted. This is a fine book, well worth reading. It just isn’t that groundbreaking, or novel. It does not come close to paying off the elegant title.

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