Thursday, 2 July 2020

The Progress of Science

The Progress of Science - a sculpture at Glasgow University Engineering Building

Views over Kelvingrove Park from University of Glasgow
During the recent coronavirus lockdown, like many people I have spent more evenings wandering around the streets of my hometown, and maybe paying attention to some details that had previously escaped my notice. Now 12 weeks in, I think I have now walked up and down each and every street, lane and park within a 5 mile radius of my house. One place I keep coming back to is the University of Glasgow building on Gilmorehill, either enjoying the views over Kelvingrove to the south, sheltering in the university cloisters, or just wandering about the various buildings. 

Western quadrangle, University of Glasgow
Cloisters, University of Glasgow

One of these buildings that I have looked at more closely than ever before is the James Watt Engineering Building. This sits just east of the main University building. The chemistry department was previously found here, but with the prevailing wind blowing from the west, their fumes were regularly being blown all over the main campus. So at the start of the 20th century the chemists were moved to new premises further to the west, leaving a prominent spot for the faculty of engineering to move in to.

I spent 7 years as a student at Glasgow University, and the James Watt Engineering Building was never one that I paid much attention to. Work started on it in 1899 and it was opened in 1901 by Lord Kelvin, to the north-east of the main Gilbert Scott building. Over time various extensions were added and between 1957-59 a further large extension was added, a functional, and rather non-descript building designed by architects Keppie, Henderson and Gleave. Its otherwise undecorated ashlar south-facing surface was decorated with a 30 foot high frieze carved in Portland stone. 

James Watt was born in Greenock in 1736 and was working as a mathematical instrument maker at Glasgow University on the High Street when he came up with the idea of his steam engine that would make his name. In recent times his name has been linked to the money his father made from rum, sugar and cotton produced by slaves on Caribbean estates. James Watt himself was also involved in a case of selling a slave boy to his new master in Scotland. More light has been cast on these facts in recent weeks as the spotlight from the Black Lives Matter movement spreads into previously overlooked aspects of our collective history. The "James Watt School of Engineering" at Glasgow University has been quick to flag up these issues on its website, whilst continuing to ally itself to the "innovative spirit of Watt".
James Watt (south) building in front of the main University of Glasgow building

The architects of this new building specified a relief sculpture of some kind should be an integral part of their design from the outset. The University authorities suggested that the subject of the sculpture should be "the development of engineering relative to the University". Their initial suggestion was for abstract shapes, inscribed with various important names and dates, "a unified composition of small units", rich in texture to match the Scott Gothic of the neighbouring University main building.

In the correspondence between the University authorities and the architect it is clear that the University quickly fear that none of their plans are being listened to and they complain that "the plaque is unlikely to seem a good £3000 worth", and that it does "nothing to tie the New to the Old as claimed." It would be fair to say that the building as a whole adds little to the beauty of the University of Glasgow campus, but it was the images on this frieze that caught my eye as I was walking past it today. 

James Watt building, south extension. Not the prettiest building on the university campus.

Eric Kennington - artist

A cursory look at the relief on the southern face of this building shows you that the finished sculpture bears very little comparison to the brief laid out by the architects. Entitled "The Progress of Science" it stands about 30 foot by 10 foot in size. Instead of describing the "development of engineering relative to the University" it in fact has only one scientist in it, who stands in Arabic robes, and lots of imagery from nature, religion and mythology. 
The Progress of Science, by Eric Kennington
The architects in their early reports to the University authorities described their plans for the sculpture and in their 1957 "Notes On Bas-Relief Sculptural Panel". With no explanation given, they recommended a "non-Scottish sculptor".They suggested Eric Kennington for the job, as the "British sculptor most likely to make an outstanding job of the panel."

In a letter to the architects from the assistant secretary to the University court, disquiet that the architects favoured Kennington to a Scottish sculptor, suggesting "What about Hew Lorimer or Benno Shotz?" Benno Shotz had recently completed a 15 foot high tablet on the side of the new chemistry building of Joseph Black, and Hew Lorimer was commissioned to sculpt the facade of the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. 

Joseph Black by Benno Schotz
In the end Kennington was given the commission for what was to be his final work. The work had to be completed by September 1959 for the official opening, and when Kennington took ill in June 1959 he headed back to England and his assistants, Eric Stanford and Archibald Robertson, who had been working alongside him for 2 months on the job, completed the sculpture. Kennington died, aged 72, before the work was completed.

Eric Kennington was born in 1888. After attending the Lambeth School of art he enlisted in 1914 and was injured while fighting on the Western Front. After 4 months in hospital he returned to France as a war artist. After the war he met T.E. Lawrence who had come to an exhibition of his paintings, and they became lifelong friends. In 1921 he traveled through Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria drawing portraits or Arab subjects and many of these were used as illustrations in T.E. Lawrence's book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

One of Kennington's illustrations from the 1935 edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that belonged to my father-in-law
In 1935 he was one of T.E. Lawrence's pall bearers and sculpted the bust of Lawrence for his tomb. Throughout the 1920s and 30s he was increasingly working as a sculptor. During World War 2 he was again commissioned as a war artist, working mainly for the RAF. 

Parachutes, 1941, by Eric Kennington
After the war he continued to work and was elected as member of the Royal Academy. His sculpture for the University of Glasgow in 1959 was his last work. 

The Progress of Science

Top of Kennington's sculpture

The main features in his sculpture seem to have little connection to Glasgow, to science or to engineering. At the top stands Hermes, messenger to the Gods of Greece, with his winged feet, and his staff with entwined snakes about it in his right hand. As the Roman god Mercury he often carries his staff in the left hand, so I am going to stick with the Greek versions throughout. Also I suggest that a major source of ideas for the sculpture was Belgian scientist George Sarton. He is credited as largely being the founder of the discipline of the history of science. He wrote extensively on Greek scientists, such as in his book "Hellenistic Science and Culture in the Last Three Centuries BC". This book was published in 1955, just in time for any artist in 1957 who was looking for ideas for a work on the history of science to find inspiration.  

In this book he talks about one of the greatest scientists in the Greek world, Eratosthenes. Eratosthenes became chief librarian at Alexandria, he was known as a critic of Homer and he made some of the earliest calculations of the size of the Earth's circumference, and the tilt of the Earth's axis. He also wrote poetry, and Sarton quotes his Hermes as "his masterpiece. Such poems satisfied the scientific curiosity as well as the love of metrical words of the Ptolemic aristocracy." 

Beside Hermes can be found motifs from mythology and the natural world. Pegasus the winged horse, a swan, the sun with rays coming across towards an eagle, who seems to be bowing down. Above the eagle parachutes are falling, and Pegasus was the emblem of the newly formed British parachute regiment in the second world war. Is the eagle the German Reich succumbing to the British forces? A compass is found in the background here, and the word "PROGRESS".

Progress of Science, or memories of war?
To the left is found a kite (is this Benjamin Franklin's kite that he flew in a thunderstorm to experiment with electricity), and a quiver with an arrow (I can only guess that these belong to Artemis, goddess of hunting). A cloud of smoke adds to the mystery of this collection of items.

A quiver and a kite
Perhaps the clue is that Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and the god of thunder and the skies, stands in the middle here, ready to cast down a bolt of lightening, science explaining the mythology.

In the lower half of the panel the god Hephaestus stands at his anvil, below a volcano, with his other symbols, his hammer and tongs, in his hands. Hephaestus was the god of blacksmiths and metalworkers, forges, fire and volcanoes, artisans, stone masons and sculptors. Hephaestus epitomises George Sarton's life work, trying to combine the humanities and sciences. By creating a history of science he wanted to create a "new humanism". He felt that without science the humanities are incomplete, and without the arts, history, philosophy, religion that a life of science was empty. He looked for this in the world of ancient Greece, of Homer and in the medieval Arab world. Like Kennington he traveled around the Middle East as part of his work, learning Arabic as he sought to read original manuscripts of the Arab scholars.

Lower part of The Progress of Science
Carpenters' tools, farming implements, gears, chains and pulleys lie between the figures and below it all a boat that looks suspiciously like Noah's ark, floats on a sea filled with a whale and a shoal of fish. Other scientific instruments such as protractors, possibly an Archimedes screw, and a governor mechanism are dotted about. 

Also several words are seen. "PROGRESS", "PER MARE, PER TERRAS" (by land and sea - motto of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland), "SCIENTIA ET INGENIO" (motto of the Society of Civil Engineers), "DISCE DOCE" (learn, teach- motto of the Institution of Electrical Engineers). These mottoes hint that some of the symbols in the sculpture may be nods to the emblems of engineering societies - the swan way in fact be the crane from the Civil Engineers crest, the caduceus of Hermes, his staff, is found in the crest of the Electrical Engineers, as is the winged horse.

The one mystery that did have me scratching my head was the man on the left, standing atop some steps, his calipers measuring an orb of some description. Out of keeping with everyone else depicted he is in Arabic robes, a ghutrah or keffiyeh on his head, and a beard and moustache similar to those Kennington has drawn in his pictures for T.E. Lawrence's book, such as the portrait of Auda Abu Tayi above. This figure is the only one taken from history, and the only scientist depicted in the sculpture. 

The solitary scientist in the sculpture

Arabic scientist, but which one?
Again I have gone back to the writings of George Sarton to find out, as I suspect that Kennington found a lot to agree with in Sarton's book An Introduction to the History of Science. Over several volumes he had taken this from the time of Homer up to the 14th century by the time of his death in 1956. Like Kennington he traveled extensively in the Middle East in the 1920s as he investigated the area where many of our modern scientific ideas originated. As Professor Jim Al-Khalili points out in his book "Pathfinders. The Golden Age of Arabic Science" for 700 years the language of science was Arabic. Their scholars began translating the works of the Ancient Greek scientists and thinkers such as Euclid, Aristotle, Archimedes, and Ptolemy in the mid-8th century. They examined and improved some of these ideas with the technologies available in their time. 

The vocabulary of these ancient scientists survives in our English words, such as alkali, azimuth, alcohol, algebra, elixir, nadir, zenith, and alchemy. Ptolemy, the Greek mathematician and astronomer, wrote his Almagest, his theory on the movements and sizes of the planets and the sun. He laid out his ideas on celestial motions, his solar and lunar theories and catalogues the stars. His Almagest was translated into Arabic (and we still know it from its Arabic naming, 'The Great Book') and in the 9th century the caliph of Baghdad, Al-Ma'mun, commissioned a huge observatory to be built in Baghdad to allow his scientists to check Ptolemy's observations. With the necessary state funding behind them, a team of astronomers, mathematicians and geographers. They improved upon Ptolemy's observations and drew up charts of planetary motions and made more accurate estimates of the Earth's circumference. They also placed the Sun at the centre of the planets, with the Earth and other planets revolving around it. More accurate calculations of the Earth's circumference were made by Al-Biruni, using algebra to look to the distant horizon from the base and summit of a mountain. Born in Khiva in modern Uzbekistan, he was Persian, and wrote on physics, mathematics, anthropology, religious history, astronomy, and came up with te idea of dividing the hour into 60 minutes and seconds. His calculations on the circumference of the Earth are merely 1% out from modern measurements. Of the three giants of medieval science who all lived in the same era, Ibn al-Haytham who developed new theories of optics, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the father of early modern medicine and al-Biruni, it is the latter who we see depicted by Eric Kennington with his calipers out, measuring the size of the Earth. In a book I suspect Kennington was reading due to their shared interest in the Middle East, George Sarton says in his Introduction to the History of Modern Science, the first half of the eleventh century was "the Age of al-Biruni".

We have here our scientist, al-Biruni, possibly

I think that this sculpture by Eric Kennington, his last work before his death, combines many elements of his life's work, his ideas and experiences. As a churchwarden in Checkendon, Oxfordshire he was a religious man and bible references can be seen in his work. He served as a war artist in both world wars and elements from that can be seen also, particularly his World War II experiences with the RAF. Parts of the sculpture try to connect the humanities and science, with classical references and the Greek god of sculptors prominently displayed. This is a theory explored by George Sarton, whose books were in circulation in the 1950s when the sculpture was conceived, developing a history of science, a similar task to that which Kennington was set. And finally we have the sole scientist portrayed in the piece being not a graduate of the Glasgow faculty of Engineering, nor a Copernicus, Einstein or Galileo but a man who would be little known to Westerners who had not spent time in the Middle East, or delved deep into the history of the Islamic world.

This therefore is my hypothesis of the motifs and characters portrayed on the sculpture of the Engineering building of the the University of Glasgow, based on my own observations and the limited evidence I have been able to find. I particularly must cite Roy MacKenzie's excellent book "Public Sculpture of Glasgow" (2002), which my mum picked up in a Brighton bookshop for £1. As with any scientific hypothesis please feel free to correct my mistakes with your own insights. 

I will leave the last words to al-Biruni, as he shakes his fist at those who would hide their own ignorance by mocking science and scientists, perhaps saying such things as "Britain has had enough of experts."
"The extremist among them would stamp the science as atheistic, and would proclaim that they lead people astray in order to make ignoramuses, like him, hate the sciences. For this will help him conceal his ignorance, and to open the door for the complete destruction of science and scientists."