Who’s that man? Introducing our avatar

Some readers and followers may have recognised the image that I used as the icon for this website and the avatar for our Twitter account.

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I chose it from among the images available on the Science Museum’s online catalogue simply as appropriate to our project’s theme and to the design of the pages. Only later did I do a little more than the preliminary digging that had told me that the detail I cropped is from a trade card published in 1683 that advertised the business of optical instrument maker, John Yarwell (Science Museum Inv: 1951-687/45).

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As can be seen in the text above, Yarwell’s shop was based in St Paul’s Churchyard in London and he sold a wide range of goods with lenses and prisms: spectacles, telescopes, perspectives, microscopes, magnifying glasses and burning mirrors. Yarwell was a significant figure within the instrument trade, and was Master of Spectacle Makers’ Company in 1684-5 and 1693. He had trained as a maker of spectacles (a craft that began late in London, perhaps only the very end of the 16th century) but had, like some others, demonstrated his skill in lens grinding and diversified into these more luxury and specialist items. We know that he worked with or supplied experimental philosophers and astronomers, including Robert Hooke, John Flamsteed and Abraham Sharp, as well as partnering with or training several other optical instrument makers.

One way in which he was influential was in his choice of shop name, or sign. In the days before streets had numbered buildings, they were referred to by their signs, as here we have depictions of items “Made and Sold by JOHN YARWELL, at ye Archimedes and Spectacles”. Unsurprisingly, as I recently discussed in my paper at the BSHS conference, bow spectacles featured on the unofficial coat of arms of the Spectacle Makers’ Company and many of the shop signs and trade cards of spectacle and optical instrument makers. In this image we can, typically, see them as a shop sign: an icon of the trade suspended at the top left of the image.

Other trade cards depict the shop signs even more literally – which makes sense given they were about advertising and recognition – and we can see that hanging signs of one, two or three pairs of spectacles were frequent, often paired with another more complex and up-to-date instrument (e.g. quadrant, microscope) or a portrait. As noted by David Bryden and Dennis Simms in their 1993 articles for Technology and Culture and the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, optical instrument makers, particularly ones associated with the Spectacle Makers’ Company, had a particular penchant for Archimedes, a name that lasted, via apprenticeship, shop succession and imitation, until the mid-19th century.

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Also from the Science Museum, the 1697 trade card, or advertising flyer, above shows a somewhat exotic-looking figure of Archimedes, anachronistically looking through a 17th-century telescope, alongside the three Golden Spectacles. Similar images were used, among others, by Yarwell’s rival, John Marshall, and his apprentices and successors, including Brandreth and Willdey and the Sterrop family.

We might assume, as do Bryden and Simms, that the figure in the 1683 card (a later version of which also survives at the British Museum) is likewise intended to represent Archimedes, although it has also been taken for a depiction of Yarwell himself or, perhaps, his idealised customer. But, as Robert Whipple pointed out in a 1951 article, the 17th-century gentleman depicted is in fact of Gdansk rather than Syracuse, being based on an engraving in Johann Hevelius’s Machina Coelestis (1673): interesting evidence for the circulation of that text among London artisans, artists, printers and their customers.

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Whipple was, however, particularly excited about this 1683 trade card for another reason. It had been purchased by the collector T.H. Court (“to whom”, he says, “all lovers of old scientific instruments are so much indebted”) at the famous 1936 Sotheby’s sale of Isaac Newton’s papers. It had been kept by Newton and his successors, and listed by the auction house, more for the autograph notes on its reverse (chiefly passages from the Fables of Gaius Julius Hyginus) than for the depiction of 17th-century instruments or interest in Yarwell’s business and the city’s developing optical instrument trade.

So: there we are. The project’s current avatar is none less than Mr. Yarwell-Archimedes-Hevelius, a practical and learned gent of cosmopolitan and commercial Restoration London.

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