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The ghost of a flea

The story of the first British flea circus, in 1743, can be seen in a document from the Society’s archives.

Robert Hooke’s flea plate from Micrographia (1665) isn't the only little bloodsucker in the Society’s history...

Robert Hooke’s flea plate from Micrographia (1665) is one of the most reproduced and representative images of science at the Royal Society in the seventeenth century. However it’s not the only little bloodsucker in the Society’s history. For example, our ‘Women in Science’ Wikipedia edit-a-thon and panel discussion may well talk about the leading entomologist Dame Miriam Rothschild FRS (1908-2005) whose family flea collection (of the scientific kind) was legendary. But even better, the Society can fairly claim to have hosted the first British flea circus, in 1743.

Letter from Sobieski Boverick to the Royal Society, 1743

Much of the story can be seen in the document shown, from the Society’s archives. A London watchmaker, Sobieski Boverick (c.1718-1789), applied to demonstrate his miniature world to the Fellowship and, on 9 June 1743, was introduced to a Royal Society meeting by the microscopist Henry Baker FRS (1698-1774). Baker’s interest was, unsurprisingly, the tiny scale of the handiwork – Boverick had produced a six-horse working landau complete with driver, footmen and a dog thrown in for effect. He must have been intending to advertise his prowess as a watchmaker by using the flea-drawn mechanism and Hooke, who shared an interest in watches, would surely have been amused. Exactly the same fascination with the very small is evident today in stunts performed at the micro- and nano-scale.

Boverick’s works (which you might view in his premises off the Strand) didn’t stop there and were pretty widely reported in contemporary magazines. He managed to construct “a curious pair of steel scissars, so minute, as six pair may be wrapped up in the wing of a fly”. By 1768 Boverick would be in Edinburgh, and advertising other demonstrations of his finicky prowess: “having had the honour of exhibiting his collections of miniature curiosities to the nobility some few years since, thinks it his duty to acquaint them that he works family hair with a needle in so extraordinary a manner that the newness of taste and the delicacy of the work have been admired by all who have seen it…” Boverick seems to have had a taste for marrying his artefacts with elements of the natural world (flea, fly-wing, hair) that would have been familiar to many from Hooke’s illustrations and from their descendents and imitators.

A defiantly anti-materialist view, combined with some of Boverick’s flea theatricality, became the jumping-off point for the work of a quite different visionary, the English artist William Blake (1757-1827). Some commentators have suggested that his Ghost of a flea might have been made with an awareness of Hooke’s description. Perhaps, but Blake must have had a far more direct experience of scientific illustration since he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire (1730-1802). Basire and his family engraved the plates for the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions for many years, including during Blake’s apprenticeship.    

Which leads me to wonder – if Hooke hadn’t published that plate, would Boverick have selected the flea-coach as part of his watchmaker’s publicity campaign? Remember, it was the single item (of many possible things) he chose to show at the Royal Society. And would Blake’s work have been very different if the flea were not so familiar (and apt to tread the boards). Perhaps just the ghost of a connection exists.

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