3. Appreciation of nature, and the sciences

Quaker attitudes to the arts, and Quaker aesthetics, have been treated at length, as setting a context for attitudes to portraiture. But to complete the picture, and to begin setting a context for photography and photographic portraiture, a look at the sciences is in order.

Quakers were enthusiastically attracted to the sciences, and the hugely disproportionate number of Friends who were Fellows of the Royal Society has often been remarked upon. (1) Some, such as John Dalton, who developed the atomic theory, attained historic stature. Less well-known was Dr Thomas Young (2), who first proposed the undulatory theory of light, and formulated a theory of colour later developed by James Clark Maxwell. Young was born and brought up a Quaker, but abandoned the Society in adulthood; in 1795 he toured Italy and the Harz mountains in the company of Tom Wedgwood, who was to make the first attempt to use the effect of light on silver salts to obtain photographic records. Young was praised by Sir John Herschel for his contribution to optical theory. (3)

The Friend took a surprisingly active interest in scientific matters from the outset, running occasional columns on natural history, astronomy, meteorology and so on. (4) In the realm of hard science it was serious enough to review no fewer than four books on chemistry in its November 1844 issue. (5)

Individual Quakers often took a lively interest in the sciences. Samuel Galton, for instance, 'was often deeply occupied in courses of experiments on optics and colours, and also on electricity and chemistry', according to his daughter, Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck. (6) Natural history, particularly, was seen as perfectly appropriate for children. Maude Robinson's grandmother gave her grandchildren a large book with many good woodcuts called Plates Illustrative of Natural History, and 'J.G. Wood's three-volume 'Natural History' of beasts, birds and reptiles was much loved and pored over during the long winter evenings.' (7) Natural history came to be extensively studied at Quaker schools, and indeed, by the early nineteenth century Quaker schools were ahead of most of their contemporaries in this regard. (8)

Interestingly, it is recorded of the prominent and influential Quaker Joseph John Gurney that 'The wonderful structure of the human body was a theme on which he loved to dwell; and his last visit to Ackworth, very shortly before his death, was distinguished by a familiar but beautifully lucid description of the wise and curious provision made by the Creator, in the formation of the eye.' (9) This pins down very firmly the importance attached by Quakers to observation, and it was especially because of the significance attributed to observing nature that they were attracted to the observational sciences (like the astronomy and meteorology regularly covered in The Friend). (10)

Through Luke Howard's essay, referred to above, we can find the connection between Quaker aesthetics and the observational sciences. For if beauty lies in truth, 'Science was one means of seeking truth, and truth in the physical world was manifested through the aesthetic of beauty.' Natural phenomena, truthfully observed as beautiful, spoke of God's design. (11)

The teaching of drawing in Quaker schools, as a means of representing nature, has already been mentioned. In the context of truthfulness, an article in The British Friend in 1859 is of particular interest, because its ideas can obviously be extrapolated to photography. The article, entitled 'The Study of Drawing, and Its Utility in Manufacture,' is reprinted, with tacit editorial endorsement, from the Clerkenwell News. The author notably asserts that:

There is one important point in reference to drawing, which is very much overlooked. In design especially, every drawing, copy, or picture, should represent a fact or an idea. It is as easy to tell a lie with the pencil as with the tongue. The laws of nature give a support to everything, and with them the legitimate laws of art should correspond. (12)

Friends have always held sincerity, honesty and truth as of paramount importance in their personal lives as much as in their dealings with others. (13) It was in the same year as the publication of the article just referred to that Francis Frith, in his 'The Art of Photography', endorsed Luke Howard's views, asserting that 'truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people.' (14)

This, too, was the period when John Ruskin's writings were in course of publication. (15) Ruskin was to exert a notable influence on Quaker aesthetics of the second half of the nineteenth century. Ruskin's theory emphasized sincerity, originality, intensity, truth to nature and experience and visionary imagination; '. . . he offers a theory of instinctive beauty, which he derives from the fact that man is created in his Maker's image, to argue that the mere contemplation of beauty in nature and art is a spiritual, spiritualizing act.' (16) This is in marked harmony with Howard's aesthetic. Agnes Yates, a Quaker amateur painter, recorded of Ruskin that


His pleas for "truth" became the touchstone for all my outdoor sketching. There must be no pretence in one's work, and if "artistic licence" were ever indulged in, it must be to enhance, and not to detract from the truthfulness of the effect produced. To make a scene as near to reality, in the portrayal of it, as one could, with one's limited powers, became increasingly one's aim. (17)

Interestingly, when describing the increasing teaching of painting at Quaker schools in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Frederick Nicholson notes that, even when pupils were taken into the open for painting, 'the ideal was the photographic representation of what the eye 'actually saw'.' (18) Though the photographic metaphor was probably Nicholson's overlay, there seems little doubt of the underlying truth, and this seems to be an accurate representation of the contemporary Quaker understanding of photographic verisimilitude.


1. For a recent instance, see www.pendlehill.org/spring2000_424.html (18th November 2000),

2. 1773-1829.

3. Peacock (1859): 92-3, 134, 212, 379, 396-7; Galton (1883): 33, Jacobs (2000), Wood & Oldham (1954): 50. It was Young, too, who made the first breakthrough in the decipherment of the Rosetta Stone.

4. In 1845 it ran a series of articles by 'M.M.M.', advocating the science of phrenology.

5. The Friend III.35 (November 1845): 268, & subsequent issues; II.11 (November 1844): 251-2 & 260-1; and passim.

6. Hankin (1859): 30.

7. Robinson (1938/1947): 43.

8. Cantor (1999): 4.

9. Braithwaite, ed. (1854): I.172.

10. Cantor (1999): 3-4. Bootham school bought an astronomical observatory in 1850—Doncaster (1908). One notes with interest, too, the title chosen for the Ackworth school magazine from 1829 to 1831: The Camera Obscura.

11. ibid.: 7.

12. The British Friend, XVII:288, November 1859.

13. Michael Wigg has rightly pointed out, for example, that 'It was probably because of the Quaker reputation for probity that Alfred Rosling was elected the first treasurer of The Photographic Society.' Wigg (1998): 5.

14. Frith (1859): 117.

15. The last volume of Modern Painters appeared in 1860.

16. Landow (2000).

17. quoted in Nicholson (1968): 100.

18. op. cit.: 100.


©2001–2023 Benjamin S. Beck

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