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Pythagorean Visions: Picturing Harmony in British Art, 1719–1753

Research Lunch – Dominic Bate

  • 10 February 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Online

In the early eighteenth century, an eclectic group of artists and architects working primarily in London believed that they could improve the arts by placing their working practices on an unassailable mathematical footing. In this endeavour they were inspired by a concept of universal harmony, which held that the entire cosmos was organised by God according to the rules of arithmetic and geometry. This concept had ancient roots, being associated with the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, among others, but it assumed a new significance in Hanoverian Britain thanks to the work of antiquarians and natural philosophers such as Isaac Newton, whose scientific discoveries were hailed in terms of the recovery of lost knowledge.

The first part of this talk introduces some of the artistic initiatives that were inspired by the highly acclaimed work of Newton and his followers, and argues that these initiatives can be understood with reference to the early modern phenomenon of “projecting”, defined in this instance as the contrivance of speculative schemes that sought to marry public benefit and private profit by harnessing the power of mathematics and natural knowledge.

The second part of the talk deepens and complicates the first by focusing on the career of the talented draftsman Giles Hussey (1710–1788), who developed a mathematical approach to portraiture during the 1730s and 1740s. At the heart of Hussey’s method was the geometry of the equilateral triangle and the proportional relationships that it encompassed, including the ratios of musical consonances such as the octave (2:1), the perfect fourth (4:3) and the perfect fifth (3:2). Hussey’s work shows how the pursuit of mathematical approaches to artmaking could be productive while also entailing serious practical and theoretical difficulties, thereby shedding light on the role played by eighteenth-century artists (rather than “disinterested” philosophers) as solvers of aesthetic problems.

Image courtesy of Dominic Bate

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders portrait of Dominic Bate in front of brick wall

    Dominic Bate is a PhD candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is writing a dissertation that examines the relationship between art and aesthetics, natural theology and practical mathematics in eighteenth-century Britain. Before coming to Brown, Dominic worked in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, where he was involved in cataloguing the collection of portrait prints and British book illustrations. Dominic has BA and MA degrees in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and in the spring of 2022 he was a visiting student in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. His research has been supported by the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown and the Paul Mellon Center for Studies in British Art.