Books & Arts

Science in culture

A disputed portrait of Robert Hooke may in fact show a contemporary.

The great portrait mystery

At the tricentenary of Robert Hooke's death two years ago, no one knew what he looked like. Despite Hooke's reputation as one of the principal architects of the scientific revolution, there were no known surviving portraits of him — an outcome, it was rumoured, of his enmity with Isaac Newton, who did all he could to erase Hooke's image after his death.

But in 2003, historian Lisa Jardine ruffled academic feathers by boldly claiming to have discovered a portrait of Hooke, which featured on the cover of her biography The Curious Life of Robert Hooke (HarperCollins, 2003). This painting has resided for more than a century in the Natural History Museum in London, where it was taken to be a portrait of the British naturalist John Ray (1627–1705) painted by the seventeenth-century artist Mary Beale. The painting was bequeathed as such to the museum in 1787 after the death of its former owner, the botanist William Watson.

Jardine argued that the visage looks nothing like other portraits of Ray, and that the features instead match some contemporary descriptions of Hooke, who was said to have bulging grey eyes and curly brown hair and to be of emaciated appearance. Others have found this evidence not only slender but also unconvincing: the face is certainly unusual, but does it really correspond in any regard to these accounts?

Now William Jensen, a specialist in the history of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, has an alternative proposal. He points out in Ambix (51, 263; 2004) that the portrait can be superimposed remarkably well onto an engraving of another influential seventeenth-century scientist, the Flemish chemist and physician Jan Baptista van Helmont (1579–1644). The engraving appears in the 1648 edition of van Helmont's great work Ortus medicinae, published posthumously by his son Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont (whose likeness is inserted behind his father's on the same page). Van Helmont's writings were never published in his lifetime because he was persecuted as a heretic by the Spanish Inquisition and forced to live under house arrest in Vilvoorde, near Brussels, until his death.

Particularly telling is the wispy moustache and underlip hair in the 1648 work, which is reproduced in the portrait thought to be of Ray. There is no record of Hooke having sported such facial hair. Hooke was only nine years old when van Helmont died, so there seems to be no possibility of the reverse confusion.

So where did the ‘Ray’ painting come from? Jensen says that Franciscus van Helmont had his own portrait made while he resided in England during the 1670s, and might have commissioned a picture of his father at the same time, based on the earlier engraving. But then who was the artist? And why did Watson, a hundred years later, have the false impression that he owned a painting of Ray by Mary Beale?

The haunting image clearly still holds mysteries. But the face of poor Robert Hooke may have vanished once more from history.

Author information


  1. Philip Ball is a consultant editor for Nature.

    • Philip Ball


  1. Search for Philip Ball in:


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.