Thomas Bewick: “…various jobs… fell exclusively to my lot to execute… [including] the Mathematical Figures for Charles Hutton. This frequently drew him into the Room, in which I worked, to inspect what I was doing – he was always very civil but seemed to me to be of a very grave or shy deportment…”
Hutton won the Copley Medal – one of the highest scientific honours of his day – but figuring out mathematically ‘the force of fired gunpowder and the velocity of cannon balls’ has failed to retain our fascination or estimation in the way an exquisite woodprint by Bewick or the speed and power of a locomotive by Robert Stephenson has.
These two marble figures sit side by side in Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society (a testament to longevity itself); Thomas Bewick dapper in waistcoat and cravat with ‘heroic’ hair, to his right Robert looks – to my untrained eye – as though straight from the shower; broader shouldered and heavier set, both sharing an air of intelligence and capability.
But Hutton is here too, around the corner and opposite the elder George Stephenson – as though he really is as important as the other three. George is naked except for faint lines of worry in his expression, whereas Charles is tightly swaddled – no room for shoulders – as though there were never arms*, the massive expanse of forehead enhanced by a hairline far in recession suggesting both deep thought and a touch of sadness, as though already in possession of the knowledge his star would wane.
It would be tempting to show you photos of these chaps, but I hope instead you will make the trip in June to come and see them – and the Great Lines Exhibition – for yourselves.
*Hutton had an accident as a child that left an arm severely damaged – part of the reason he was sent to school rather than to work in a mine.