The Royal Society Soirées

Highlights from the Summer Science Exhibition

Conversazione of the Royal Society (1888) by J. R. BrownThe Royal Society


From 1660, the Royal Society’s meetings on natural philosophy were a compendium of scientific discussion, experiment, and the display of unusual objects. Fellows would continue their ruminations in public spaces, such as coffee-houses and at their private homes. Such conversations were encouraged by Presidents: by the late 18th century, the house of physician Sir John Pringle (1707-1782) on the Strand, and the residence of naturalist Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) in Soho Square were the scenes of evening gatherings (soirées) and  breakfasts (levées).   

Sir William Crookes inspects 'Burlington House curios' (1905)The Royal Society

The Admiralty official Sir John Barrow (1764-1848) later recalled that: ‘the literati of all nations were to be met; curiosities of every description were brought by visitors and exhibited.’ This is the story of how these embryonic displays were transformed into today’s Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.    

The Marquess of Northampton's soirée (1847) by Henry HarrisonThe Royal Society

Science on display    

Evening soirées became the norm for Royal Society Presidential exhibitions. Aristocratic Presidents, such as the Duke of Sussex (1773-1843), or the Marquess of Northampton (1790-1851), could accommodate hundreds of guests in their London townhouses and might rely upon the attendance of notable Royals to add lustre to the events, such as Prince Albert (1819-1861) pictured here. Despite the high standing of the company, the exhibits remained spontaneous. On 25 January 1843, the palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, FRS (1790-1852) displayed ‘an ivory Saxon horn…much admired…[and] a Lily Encrinite from Brunswick, which [he] had purchased that morning at a sale for £5:5.’. 

The Royal Society's conversazione (1904) by T. P. CollingsThe Royal Society

Later in the century, the complexion of the 'soirées' changed. Working scientists had neither unlimited funds to underwrite the events, nor large London residences in which to host them. In the 1860s, the exhibitions - now officially termed 'conversazioni' - were being held biannually at the Society’s Burlington House headquarters, with printed programmes of exhibits. By the 1870s, the Royal Society had become fully responsible for their finances and administration.

The Marquess of Northampton's soirée (1847) by Henry HarrisonThe Royal Society

This contemporary engraving shows an evening reception held at the Piccadilly home of the Royal Society’s President, the Marquess of Northampton. Here, Prince Albert is shown in conversation with his host.

Other guests included the travel writer James Holman (1786-1857) and the palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, both Fellows of the Royal Society.

A working model of a double-action printing machine is one of the few visible exhibits.

The accompanying text states that: ‘It is customary, at réunions like the present, to assemble models of new inventions, rare works of art, and other productions of genius, for the gratification of the company’.

Portrait of Gideon Mantell (1837) by James Masquerier (1778-1855)The Royal Society

The Lewes-based surgeon Gideon Mantell showed microscope studies and new fossil finds at Royal Society events, but also documented his many impressions of the Presidential conversazioni.

His diary records meeting with Sir Robert Peel FRS (1788-1850) and Francois Guizot (1787-1874): ‘It was a curious circumstance to have two ex-ministers of the two greatest modern nations inspecting anatomical preparations of the brain of a cat…’

Lily enchrinite, Brunswick (1848) by Gideon Mantell (1790-1852)The Royal Society

Mantell drew upon his own geological collections, the Mantellian Museum, to provide material for Presidential soirées. He exhibited a lily encrinite in 1843, possibly this one, later engraved for his book The wonders of geology (6th ed., 1848).

Teeth and jaw of the Iguanodon (1825) by Gideon Mantell (1790-1852)The Royal Society

Mantell is most famously associated with the identification of the Iguanodon, one of the earliest finds of land-based dinosaurs. In April 1841, he explained the significance of Iguanodon teeth and bones under the microscope to Prince Albert, who ‘remained a considerable time inspecting with much interest the objects I placed before him.’

Conversazione of the Royal Society (1888) by J. R. BrownThe Royal Society

Science at play

Significant 19th-century scientists explained their research at Presidential soirées, to equally resplendent audiences. At the Duke of Sussex’s Kensington Palace in March 1833, Michael Faraday FRS (1791-1864) demonstrated an electric motor to the French Ambassador, Prince Talleyrand (1754-1838), Napoleon’s former chief diplomat. Although exhibition themes changed over time, the desire to use novelty, action, and stunning visual effects to create a conversation around scientific principles, were constants. 

In this contemporary newspaper illustration, the exhibits include an electric eel...

…demonstrations of wireless telegraphy…

…and floating above them all, within a soap-bubble, the demonstrations of the physicist Charles Vernon Boys, FRS (1855-1944).

Original model of Wimshurst's influence machine (Science Museum) (1882) by James Wimshurst (1832-1903)The Royal Society

Anticipating the century to come, guests listened to live theatre concerts, via telephony. By the 1880s and 1890s, spectacular static generators by James Wimshurst (1832-1909) would greet visitors with fizz and crackle.

Augustus Desire Waller and dog "Jimmy" (Wellcome Collection) by Author unknownThe Royal Society

Following Faraday’s lead, some Fellows became known as brilliant performers of science, including Augustus Waller, FRS (1856-1922), who demonstrated the electrocardiograph, aided by his pet bulldog, Jimmy.

Other exhibits were drawn from the Society’s own scientific publications, and to demonstrate the national value of Government grants administered by the Royal Society.

Portrait of Charles Vernon Boys (1915) by John Collier (1850-1934)The Royal Society

The mildly eccentric scientist Charles Vernon Boys was ideally suited to the conversazione format. His soap-bubble physics gave play to his natural showmanship. Among his many other exhibits were quartz fibre-making and gravity measuring apparatus. Boys was in some respects a prototype for today’s media-based science popularisers.

Radiometers and otheoscopes (1875) by William Crookes, PRS (1832-1919)The Royal Society

Scientific instruments, both commercial and bespoke, were important elements of conversazioni. William Crookes, PRS (1832-1919) first displayed his then-unique radiometers at the Society in 1875. The instruments' rapidly rotating vanes produced a bright light, but the explanation for this action was the subject of scientific debate: Osborne Reynolds, FRS (1842-1912) and Arthur Schuster, FRS (1851-1934) joined Crookes with the correct answer at the 1876 soirées.

Display label, specimens of rubies from Burma (1888) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

This specimen of an unused display label for Charles Carrington Brown’s Myanmar rubies is a chance survival, the exhibit being postponed until the following year. The gems in question were part of a wider pattern of exhibiting natural resources from all corners of the British Empire.

Corundum - Ruby (private collection) (ca.2010)The Royal Society

Charles Barrington Brown (1839-1917), Canadian geologist and explorer, was known for his ground-breaking work on rubies, proving they are composed of corundum in a paper published in the Royal Society Philosophical Transactions in 1896. Like many soirées' contributors, his invitation to display the ruby would have followed publication of research.

A star-of-Bethlehem and other plants (c.1506-12) by Leonardo da VinciRoyal Collection Trust, UK

The Arts

The Royal Society’s soirées were not exclusively scientific, but included literary manuscripts, fine art, sculpture and crafts, continuing the visual culture of the earlier Presidential interiors. Regular loans from the Royal Collection ‘by permission of her majesty the Queen’ included works by Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolas Poussin and Hans Holbein. From 1867, proximity to the Royal Academy in Burlington House contributed to this vibrant cultural exchange. Figures such as Lord Leighton (1830-1896), the Academy’s President between 1878 and 1896, became conversazione visitors. Popular Victorian artists such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) and Gustave Doré (1832-1883) exhibited at the Royal Society, as did sculptors, notably the Pre-Raphaelite Thomas Woolner (1825-1892) or Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm (1834-1890) who exhibited a sculpture of author William Thackeray (1811-1863).

Poster for a Royal Society conversazione (1865) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

The Royal Society began to produce large bill posters for its conversazioni in the 1860s before producing full catalogue guides by the 1870s. These provide a wealth of detail about the material culture of the events, and the exhibitors.

Among the exhibits for 1865, Thomas Woolner’s portrait medallion of Alfred Tennyson, who was a Fellow of the Royal Society.

For a period, Tennyson was a regular visitor to Burlington House, where his brother-in-law, Charles Richard Weld (1813-1869) was Assistant Secretary, and therefore responsible for organising exhibitions.

Sappho and Alcaeus (1881) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, R.A., O.M.The Walters Art Museum

This classically-themed work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema was the highlight of the 21 June 1882 soirée at the Royal Society, displayed in the Council Room.

Engraving for Idylls of the King (1867) by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)The Royal Society

The printmaker Gustave Doré produced a series of illustrations for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Doré exhibited 'Elaine and Enid' at the Royal Society soirée of 2 March 1867. These illustrations were published in the 1868 edition of the book.

London Bridge on the Night of the Marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales (Ashmolean Museum) (1864) by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910)The Royal Society

The Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827-1910) was exhibited alongside Doré at the Royal Society soirée on 2 March 1867. His view of London Bridge is a marvellous confection of medieval banners and modern gas lighting technology, all under a moonlit sky.

Le point de vue du Gras (Musée Nicéphore Niépce) (1826) by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833)The Royal Society

Royal Society Fellows were interested in novel pictorial techniques. The world’s first photographs, by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), were displayed in 14 March 1839, alongside paper prints by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and Sir John Herschel (1792-1871).

Le point de vue du Gras (Musée Nicéphore Niépce) (1826) by Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833)The Royal Society

This photographic revolution became a fixture of the conversazioni, bringing the Victorian world into Burlington House. Automatic image-making, including pendulum-based harmonograph drawings or the voice figures of Welsh singer and inventor Margaret Watts-Hughes (1842–1907), all featured alongside conventional visual aids, such as the electric lantern and, eventually, cinematography.

Mr. Muybridge at the Royal Society (1889) by Richard Taylor and Thomas Walter WilsonThe Royal Society

Shows by lantern formed part of the conversazione evening programming and these talks often featured photography. Here, instantaneous pictures of human and animal motion may be seen projected behind their author, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).

Animal Locomotion, plate 627 (1887) by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)The Royal Society

Among Muybridge’s most famous images were those of horses in motion.

Animal Locomotion, plate 627 (1887) by Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904)The Royal Society

The photographs were taken with a sequence of cameras tripped by electric switches along a riding circuit.

Such photographs captured all the animal’s hooves in the air, the first time this had been seen.

X-ray photograph of the hand of William George Armstrong (1896) by Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton (1863-1930)The Royal Society

By 1896, the novelty of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen’s recently discovery was being exploited to take x-ray pictures of conversazione visitors. In this example, industrialist William George Armstrong, FRS (1810-1900) offered his hand. Armstrong himself organised regional soirées, showcasing industrial output and mercantile products, including one at the Mechanics’ Institute in March 1864.

Electrical discharge (1899) by William George Armstrong (1810-1900) and The Autotype Company, PrinterThe Royal Society

Armstrong's own electric art featured in several conversazioni of the 1890s: these Lichtenberg figures were created by high voltage discharges over lead and sulphur powders.

Harmonograph figure (1901) by Joseph GooldThe Royal Society

Lissajous curves are created by the automatic drawing of twin pendulums set in motion while holding paper and pen.

Their complex shapes can be very beautiful, and the combination of art and motion must have been hypnotic for soirée audiences. Several types were exhibited as entertainments at the Royal Society, including by Joseph Goold, in 1894.

Hertha Ayrton (1906) by James Russell & SonsThe Royal Society

More serious research into the electric arc was exhibited by Sarah [Hertha] Ayrton (1854-1923). In this portrait, she poses with the sand ripple tank she demonstrated at a 1904 conversazione.
Although other women had volunteered material for exhibitions before, Ayrton's scientific work was a landmark.

Codiaeum variegatum (L) (Welcome Collection) (1885) by Berthe Hoola van Nooten (1817-1892)The Royal Society

Guests and critics 

The Society’s soirée guests were drawn predominantly from the upper echelons of society in the 19th century, all male. By 1876, the organisation relented so far as to allow women to be invited to the second of the two annual 'conversazioni', designated as ‘Ladies’ Night’. With the patronage of Presidents, women might be exhibitors too – the work of the botanical artist Marianne North (1830-1890), was championed by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, FRS (1817-1911), for example. Previously works by Berthe Hoola van Nooten (1817-1892) had been displayed on her behalf by colonial administrator Arthur Grote in 1869. The poets Samuel Rogers (1763-1855) and Thomas Moore (1779-1852) were among the literati invited to the Royal Society’s early scientific conversations. By the century’s end, authors of the age of Empire, including Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936), all visited the Royal Society’s exhibitions. 

Aquatic larva (1867) by Richard Leach Maddox (1816-1921)The Royal Society

Herbert George Wells (1866-1846) satirised the exhibitions in Ann Veronica (1909) while Kipling noted their bemusing appeal in his novel Kim (1901): ‘Nine men out of ten would flee from a Royal Society soiree in extremity of boredom; but Creighton was the tenth, and at times his soul yearned for the crowded rooms in easy London where silver-haired, bald-headed gentlemen who know nothing of the Army move among spectroscopic experiments, the lesser plants of the frozen tundras, electric flight-measuring machines, and apparatus for slicing into fractional millimetres the left eye of the female mosquito’.

Invitation to a Royal Society (1865)The Royal Society

Kipling was well-placed to refer to the conversazioni, having been invited to the Royal Society in 1893. He made the confession to Sir William Gowers: ‘chaperone me, you must or they’ll cast me out: for in the turmoil of packing I’ve lost the R.S. Soirée ticket!”

Portrait of Thomas Hardy (Robarts - University of Toronto) (ca.1894) by William Strang (1859-1921)The Royal Society

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a guest at several Royal Society receptions, including one in 1893, of which he wrote that ‘I talked on the exhibits…without (I flatter myself) betraying excessive ignorance in respect of the points in the show’. Hardy was already aware of the Royal Society: a character in his novel Two on a Tower (1882) despatches a paper on astronomy to the organisation.

Cover of The Island of Dr Moreau (NYPL) (1896) by Herbert George Wells (1866-1946)The Royal Society

The most scientifically well-connected of writers, H.G. Wells, could be critical of the popular science of the soirée. Nevertheless, in company with luminaires such as Paul Dirac, he was still attending Royal Society events as late as 1938, when he crawled, tongue-in-cheek, under an exhibition table to check for a hidden pump at a liquid helium fountain.

Portrait of Dorothy Garrod (Newnham College) (1913) by Newnham College, University of CambridgeThe Royal Society

20th century science 

The Society’s exhibitions sometimes got things wrong, although good science generally won out. The most famous forgery of 20th century science, the alleged fossil remains of Piltdown Man, were displayed at Burlington House as an authentic antiquity in 1913-14; but again in 1953, when Kenneth Page Oakley (1911-1981) exposed the fraud. As if to compensate, the archaeologist Dorothy Garrod (1892-1968) - portrayed here - explained her genuinely ground-breaking find of a Neanderthal child’s skull (Gibraltar 2) from its excavation site of the Devils’ Tower, in 1935. 

By Fritz GoroLIFE Photo Collection

What is striking about exhibitors showing at the Royal Society, was their promise for the future. In the aftermath of the Great War, the bacteriologist Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) exhibited research on the prevention of wound infections on the Western Front, an experience that would set him on course to discover the antibiotic action of penicillin. In 1953, the combined team Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958), Maurice Wilkins, FRS (1916-2004), Francis Crick, FRS (1916-2004), James Watson, FRS and others displayed: ‘A proposed structure for D.N.A.’ ushering in an era of modern genetics. What will the next discovery be? 

Credits: Story

Curated by Keith Moore, the Royal Society, and Sandra Kemp, The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University, with the support of Sandra Santos.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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