Room of Experiment

Jan van der Straet, Nova Reperta: Hyacum et Lues Venera (Detail), c. 1580-1605, Engraving, 203 x 270 mm, London, British Museum

The Pranketing Room functioned as a kind of experimental kitchen laboratory for Lady Arundel and her servants. The paintings in the room can be read in relation to these practices and the Countess’s knowledge. The furnishings of Tart Hall indicate her role as a natural philosopher and her knowledge of the arts, both linked to her skills as a healer. The fields of medicine and painting were closely linked in the discourse on art and nature. Lady Arundel exchanged her knowledge with female and male experts, connecting over a holistic and philosophical interest in the human body.

Just as in the history of art and art collections, and just like any other discipline, the history of science, the history of experiments and chemistry, of natural philosophy in the broadest sense, has been written as shaped primarily by men. Even the widespread kitchen practice of distillation, when studied as a precursor to modern chemistry, appears to have been dominated by men. The masculinity of science or rather natural philosophy as it was called in the early modern period, depends heavily on the choice of sources and on the decision to focus heavily on contributions to a linear history of scientific and artistic progress in which groundbreaking inventions and innovations paved a way to modernity.

Even if many of these histories of progress towards modernity critically reflect on the narrative, their focus remains on the male protagonists of the milestones or revolutions. Recent studies include William E. Burns, The Scientific Revolution in Global Perspective 2016; Pascal Duris, Quelle Révolution scientifique? Les Sciences de la Vie dans la Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes 2016; David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution 2015; Lawrence Lipking, What Galileo Saw: Imagining the Scientific Revolution 2014; Lawrence Principe, The Scientific Revolution: A Very Short Introduction 2011; Margaret Jacob, The Scientific Revolution: A Brief History with Documents 2010; and of course the classic Steven Shapin, The Scientific Revolution 1996 and Margaret Osler advocating for a broader perspective in Rethinking the Scientific Revolution 2000.

Frontispiece of Natura Exentera, London 1655

Only more recent studies on the intersections and parallels between art and natural philosophy and especially art and medicine give an indication of how Lady Arundel’s presence was not only ignored in portraits for a long time, but also how her influence on the Arundel Collection and its reception was marginalized. Lady Arundel needed a place for the production of her medicines, as well as for the production of the various preserves, jams and cakes and the elaborate banquetting stuffe. The evidence that this place was Tart Hall, and the pranketing room was regularly used for the “practical observation” and experimenting in a broad sense, activities emphasized in the foreword of the printed recipe collection Natura Exenterata: “if accidents are the grounds of Infirmities and diseases, then practical observations are more assistant than Systemes (…). They who do (though emperically) are to be preferred before those who dispute and talk.”

Frederick de Wit, Platte Grondt der Stadt London met de Aenwysinghe hoe die Afgebrandt is (detail), 1666, Maps.Crace I, London, British Library

Steven Shapin emphasizes the importance of a “siting of knowledge-making practices” for the questions, the structure and the results of experimental research, as well as for its legitimation and the credibility of the results in his 1988 The House of Experiment in Seventeenth-Century England– interestingly for Arundel House. He connects the space of Arundel House to the foundation of the Royal Society.

Space, both in the sense of a place and a social situation, in which employees and witnesses lend credibility to recipes and experiments, was inextricably linked with the production of knowledge. Evidence for these activities is scarce and the places where women engaged in nature exploration are seldom preserved, as Paula Findlen has shown in her 1999 study on Masculine Prerogatives: Gender, Space, and Knowledge in the Early Modern Museum. Authors such as Lynette Hunter, Michelle DiMeo, Elizabeth Spiller, and Allison Kavey, however, have been able to demonstrate how women, and especially noble women, were an integral part of the new culture of experimentation.


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