Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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.

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