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The Royal Society

The Royal Society was founded in 1660, the year of the restoration of the British monarchy. Already in 1663 the Fellows were discussing plans to publish a history of their institution, in order to broadcast their intentions to a wider audience. Thomas Sprat, a protégé of Royal Society Fellow John Wilkins, was chosen to write the work. It was first published in 1667, with a magnificent frontispiece by Wenceslas Hollar showing a bust of Charles II flanked by Francis Bacon on the right, and on the left by William, 2nd Viscount Brouncker, the first President of the Society.

The new King, Charles II (1630-85), granted the Society a royal charter in 1662; ever since then the reigning monarch has been the Patron. Charles was fascinated by science and conducted experiments himself: this curiosity led him to also found the Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital in 1673 and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1675. He supported the Royal Society’s proceedings, and attended some of their meetings. He posed questions for them to answer, such as why some ants’ eggs were larger than the ants themselves. The Society had varied interests, from the nature of gravity to investigating whether a spider could be captured within a circle of ground unicorns’ horns. Uppermost in their concerns, however, was that knowledge be gained from observation and experiment, rather than from preconceived theories. Such an attitude was fundamental to the Enlightenment, and the Royal Society has been described as laying the foundations of the modern world. Today the Royal Society is a learned organisation which provides scientific advice to policy-makers and continues to inspire excitement in scientific discovery.

The fact that the magnificent collection of 600 drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, including all his anatomical drawings, were added to the Royal Collection by Charles II, was symptomatic of the King’s interest in both art, and science.

The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover

The Embarkation of Henry VIII from Dover shows Henry VIII setting out from Dover on 31 May 1520 for his meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  However, it is much more than simply a commemoration of a single event.  It is a celebration of what was to be one of Henry’s most outstanding legacies – a standing royal navy - showing fifteen large warships, including five in some detail in the foreground.  It must have been commissioned by Henry VIII and stands as a record of his pride in the advanced new vessels at his command.

Henry VIII inherited 6 warships (Henry VII had started cautiously to create a fleet).  On his death, Henry left 18 warships and 39 other vessels in a total fleet of 57.  His reign saw a constant outfitting and re-fitting of 109 vessels at Portsmouth and Deptford.  Prior to Henry’s shipbuilding programme, merchant ships had been used to transport troops and improvised adjustments were made to accommodate troops on board.
Henry’s warships were designed in the style of Portuguese ‘carracks’ with high ‘castles’ fore and aft as part of the structure of the ship to accommodate troops and give them a fighting platform and with a low middle section (waist) to allow fighting and boarding alongside other ships.  They were no longer ‘clinker built’ with overlapping planks, but had smooth hulls so that gunports could be cut into the sides to allow broadside firing.  This meant that ships could be much more heavily armoured than when weaponry was only on the upper decks, high above the water-line. The guns could be fired one by one down the side of the ship in a ‘ripple delivery’ that was to be the main form of maritime engagement from then until well after Trafalgar.  The new designs of ship could also be built much larger allowing much greater tonnage.  

Henry also invested heavily in armouries and had his own foundry to supply cannon and weaponry; previously this had been imported from the Low Countries.


Among the substantial number of precision horological and scientific instruments that George III assembled at Buckingham House in the early part of the reign, this exceptional barograph is outstanding for both its mechanical complexity and the richness of its case. The movement was designed and made by the Scot Alexander Cumming and incorporates a month-going regulator clock with Cumming’s own escapement and an Ellicott compensating pendulum. A siphon wheel barometer in the trunk, supported between ivory Corinthian columns, is mechanically connected to the concentric six- and twelve-month charts which surround the clock dial. This barograph cost the King the large sum of £1,178, to which he added a payment of £150 and an annual retainer to Cumming of £37 10s for maintaining the barograph.

Astronomical Clock

George III's fascination for horological innovation is neatly demonstrated in this remarkable clock. The latest in technical excellence, this clock was supplied to the King in 1765 at a cost of £1,042, which included the cost of the remarkable carved cedar case (by John Bradburn) and the splendid silver mounts. The clock has four dials, the principal dial shows the time of day on a 24 hour dial with hands for mean and solar time and a painted dial showing the passage of the sun across the sky. A small central dial shows the time at thirty locations across the globe relative to mean time. The left dial shows a year calendar on a spiral, with retracting vertical hand. The right dial is an orrery with Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter & Saturn, which move around the zodiacal circle. The back dial shows the ages and phases of the moon, and high and low water at thirty-two geographical sea ports. The clock was placed on a richly carved bracket in the King's Dressing Room at Buckingham House. A design attributed to Robert Adam is in the Soane Museum: it was made by the cabinet-maker to the Great Wardrobe, John Bradburn in 1766 and cost £38-15s. In about 1770, the clock was moved to the Octagon Library, at which point the bracket was dispensed with.

The opening of the Great Exhibition, 1 May 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended both to celebrate and to spearhead progress in both arts and manufactures throughout the world. The exhibition’s opening on 1 May 1851 was the triumphant culmination of nearly two years’ work on the part of Prince Albert and a dedicated committee. Queen Victoria described the day as ‘one of the greatest and most glorious days of our lives.’ The Queen and Prince commissioned a number of watercolours of the exhibition. This view by the French artist Eugène Lami was on a particularly grand scale and was intended to be framed and hung rather than mounted in one of the Queen’s albums.

Lami’s watercolour, which was commissioned by the Queen, shows the official opening ceremony at the Crystal Palace, which was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton. A dais with baldachin had been erected at the crossing of the building, and upon it can be seen the Queen (accompanied by other members of her family), receiving the report of the Commissioners, led by Prince Albert. The scale of the Crystal Palace can be seen in the tree behind the Queen, one of those already in the Park which the building had been designed to accommodate. The occasion was the subject of much advance speculation in the press and it was feared that the Queen’s life might be endangered by her presence in the midst of such a large crowd. In fact the ceremony was extremely successful and the press noted in triumph that the Queen and her family had been able to mingle safely with the crowd.

Sir Henry Guildford (1489-1532)

When the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger arrived in London in 1526, he found his first patrons in the group of intellectuals who surrounded Henry VIII. Among these was Henry Guildford, one of the King’s closest friends and Comptroller of the Royal Household. The two almost certainly worked together in the planning of revels at Greenwich in 1527, when a ‘Master Hans’ carried out much of the decorative painting. Guildford was one of the first in England to commission a portrait from Holbein; both the preparatory drawing and the finished oil painting are in the Royal Collection.

Along with figures like Sir Thomas More, John Colet (Dean of St Pauls) and Archbishop William Warham, Guildford was deeply interested in the developments of humanism, a philosophy which encouraged the study of the sources of knowledge and the reassessment of ideas and ideals. He corresponded with the Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus. Guildford’s scholarly interests may have drawn him to Hans Holbein, who arrived in England with a recommendation from Erasmus. That one of the intellectuals close to the King was painted by one of the greatest portraitists of sixteenth-century Europe reflects the status of Henry VIII’s court as a glowing intellectual and artistic centre.

European pelican

In 1762 George III purchased the collection of Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692–1779). Among this magnificent collection was the ‘Paper Museum’ of the antiquarian and collector Cassiano dal Pozzo (1588–1657). The Paper Museum was a visual encyclopedia of the ancient and natural worlds, made up of drawings and prints commissioned and collected by Cassiano. Areas covered included artefacts of Roman civilisation (including architecture, wall paintings, mosaics, reliefs, inscriptions, and household objects), Renaissance architecture, artefacts connected with the early Christian church, maps, portraits, and every aspect of the natural world.

Cassiano had a particular interest in ornithology and wrote treatises on the subject. One such treatise was on the pelican, and this drawing was commissioned by Cassiano to illustrate his treatise. The bird had been shot in the marshes near Rome and brought to Cassiano in 1635. He commissioned a drawing of the whole pelican and then had the bird dissected in the laboratory of his palazzo. On measuring the capacity of the pouch Cassiano found that it could contain ‘fourteen pounds of water easily’.

Although little of Cassiano’s ‘Paper Museum’ was published in the seventeenth century, it was consulted by scholars from all over Europe and was one of the most impressive manifestations of the new spirit of empirical investigation which transformed the study of natural history. Over the last twenty years an international team of scholars has been engaged in cataloguing the thousands of surviving pages of the Paper Museum, and in time a series of thirty-five volumes will be published.

Design for a Corinthian Temple for Kew

Late eighteenth-century England was the period when many of the country’s finest buildings were erected, and George III, himself, was an enthusiastic and accomplished architect. His main tutor and guide in this field was Sir William Chambers (1722–96), who, at the time this drawing was made was teaching the Prince three times a week. Chambers had been heavily involved in the redevelopment of Kew Gardens under George’s parents Frederick, Prince of Wales and Augusta, Princess of Wales and he was to continue to be closely involved with his former pupil after his accession as George III in 1760, serving as Architect to the King from 1761, Comptroller of the Works from 1769 and Comptroller and Surveyor General from 1782.  He held the latter post until his resignation on the grounds of ill health in 1795. The Prince’s careful draughtsmanship is well demonstrated in the construction of this drawing, which still bears the compass points and rulings used to work out the structure.

This design is one of numerous architectural drawings by George III in the Royal Collection kept in the Print Room at Windsor Castle. It is the only instance of a surviving design by the King which is related to a documented building, although the building does not appear to have been built. It was reproduced in Chambers’s 1759 publication A Treatise on Civil Architecture, of which the Prince of Wales was the lead subscriber. In this book, the design is noted as having been ‘made for Her late Royal Highness the Princess Dowager of Wales and proposed to be erected in the gardens at Kew’. It is unclear why the temple was never constructed.

Musical instruments

This cabinet, containing several new classes of wind instruments invented by M. Adolphe Sax, was just one among many thousands of exhibits displayed in the Great Exhibition of 1851.  The exhibition was an unparalleled success, so much so that the royal commissioners decided to mark its closure with the publication of a set of volumes for presentation to foreign governments and other selected recipients. There was to be no expense spared in their production, only the very best materials were to be used – and, for the purposes of illustration, it was decided to use photographs, an unprecedented choice. This photograph is one of the 154 images used in the four volumes entitled Reports by the Juries, which not only documented the exhibition, but also marked an important turning point in the history of photography.

Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition, 1851: View of north west corner of building

At a meeting at Buckingham Palace in 1849, Prince Albert, as President of the Society of Arts, met with other interested parties and together they launched a scheme for the Great Exhibition, which they agreed should be in Hyde Park. This photograph shows the north-west corner of the building which housed the exhibition. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it became known as The Crystal Palace for it was made almost entirely of glass with a cast-iron frame. It was an innovative and massive construction, 564m long and 39m in height – high enough to accommodate several trees. The enormous success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 was to a great extent due to the tireless work and enthusiasm of Prince Albert, and it firmly established the Prince as a leading public figure.