Thursday, October 11, 2012

Stuart's Portrait of Priestley at Bowood in North Wiltshire

While in North Wiltshire this last Summer we went to Bowood House. Bowood house is the country estate of the Marquis and Marquess of Lansdowne. It was at Bowood house in 1774 that Joseph Priestley isolated the substance that we now call Oxygen. While there is some controversy as to whom was the first to "discover" oxygen, Priestley has been recognized as a true giant during the British Enlightenment Period.

The portrait on the left here sits over the mantle in the room where Priestley actually performed the experiment.  The portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart, the famous American painter.  It was after Priestley immigrated to the United States in 1794 that he actually sat for the Stuart portrait.

Gilbert Stuart, a famous American portrait painter painted portraits of many of the American Founding Fathers, including the famous portrait of George Washington that hangs in the White House. Please look at my earlier post on the Stuart portrait of Priestley at the National Gallery.

Priestley was employed by the Second Earl of Lansdowne to tutor his son and as his companion. It was in 1782 that the Earl was made Prime Minister of England and given the title of Marquis.  While Priestley was known for his radical activist views, including calling for the independence of the British colonies in America, it was ironic that it was the Marquis who signed the Peace Treaty with the fledgeling United States to end the war of Independence on behalf of the British.

Bowood is also know for another famous scientific discovery by Dr. Jan Ingen Housz, who in the 1790's discovered photosynthesis there. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Silvio Bedini

A friend and fellow Ridgefielder, Silvio Bedini, died at age 90 on November 14, 2007.
Silvio was a very interesting man, indeed.  I could not have summed up Silvio's life more eloquantly as did Robert Post in his article in Technology & Culture (April, 2008):   In memoriam: Silvio A. Bedini, 1917-2007.  I will mention some the highlights from that article here. 

Silvio was born in Ridgefield, CT and lived there until he entered Columbia University in 1935.  He left Columbia University to enlist in the Army and was eventually assigned to top secret military intelligence in Fairfax, VA and ended up in 1945 as chief MIS-X liason with the Pentagon.  Silvio's Army career came to an end with the end of WWII.  He then returned to Ridgefield and joined his father's contracting business doing landscaping. He had expected to return to Columbia, but his father's failing health precluded this.

 While working for the family company he would study history in the evening and began to write articles... He wrote for encyclopedias and for what were called 'true science' comics, which, like 'classic comics,' were designed to spice up elementary school curricula.
He got interested in antiquarian clocks and books and made the acquantance of Derek de solla Price at Yale and Bern Dibner at Burndy Corp.

For his first book in 1958 he wrote Ridgefield in Review, a history of his home town, for the 250th aniversary celebration.

Thereafter, he was invited to join the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology and Mel Kranzberg's Society for the History of Technology. These were the two most critical events central to establishing the history of technology as a scholarly discipline.

There were so many connections that Silvio and I shared. We were both Ridgefielders, although I must admit he was there way before me since I arrived in 1975 and he in 1917. We both had professional acquaintences in common: Derek De Sola Price at Yale, Bern Dibner at the Burndy Library in Norwalk, then there was the Columbia connection, the cryptography connection, the gardening, and, of course, the antique scientific instruments.  

He had come up to Ridgefield in 2007 for a visit with freinds and family, and, unfortunately, we missed each other on that trip.  Then, we were scheduled to have lunch together shortly before he died, but that got cancelled due to his ill health, and then he was gone. Gale, his wife, died shortly thereafter.  Silvio and Gale were buried in St. Mary's Cemetary, Ridgefield on May 31, 2008.  The world lost a real gem in his passing.

Joseph Priestley in Calne by Norman Beale

Hobnob Press (UK), 2008, 90pp.
I finally read through this paperback book (it is a relatively short book that is a quick read) just before we went to Bowood House just outside of Calne in North Wiltshire.  The book was undertaken by Norman Beale, who is a local retired doctor who took a fancy to study the history of the famous Priestley in the years he was in service to the Marquis of Lansdowne who resided at Bowood House.

Mr. Beale has clearly not written a biography for the general public's consumption before. Perhaps this is why he has self published this work. While I discovered many interesting details about the life of this famous enlightenment hero that I had not known before, I found the style a little wanting.  I particularly was put off by his tendency to nit pick little points where his interpretation of some detail was ever so slightly different from what others had concluded, many times without any real basis for all the hubbub. I suppose he could have just stated his interpretation without going into the distinction to what was previously recorded by others.

While the book does concentrate on the years when he was in Calne, it does cover the time both before and after he was located there, but in a more abbreviated form.  I am glad that Mr. Beale has both taken the time to research and write the book, but, also, that he has clearly invested his own funds to assure that the book was made available to a wide audience. The final product was produced very professionally.

I, for one, would have thought that a more rigorous account of the "science" would have been presented, but I am grateful for what I got.  Most great science is a lot of very tedious and menial chores.  I can recall from reading Priestley's letters in the "Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley" the letters that went on and on about the most insignificant and irrelevant matters, but that is how progress in science is made.

There is far too little written and known about this superstar of the enlightenment available to the public.  If you are ever planning on going to Bowood House, I strongly recommend that you read the book beforehand.  The staff at Bowood House seems to be oblivious to the Priestley connection in spite of the fact that there is a room there where he first "discovered" or better yet "isolated" oxygen (dephlogisticated air, as he called it).  The book is available at Bowood House, but it is a little too long to read while you are there, so do your homework.  It is available on Amazon. I bought my copy on eBay.

In spite of the ignorance of the staff at Bowood House I would still strongly recommend the visit there.  The portrait of Priestley by Gilbert Stuart is the best painting I have ever seen of Priestley (even though it is a reproduction). In walking down the hallway past the laboratory and over to the library, I could feel the hairs on my neck stand up just thinking about the fact that Joseph himself had walked these very steps almost 250 years before me. That experience is very close to the experience I had holding his Rushing Water bookplate.

Oh, if I could have been a fly on the wall when he was there.  Please don't expect to find his laboratory intact.  All the laboratory equipment was sold long long ago.