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> > > Jacob Bell and the Artists/Royal Pharmaceutical Society

16 March 2012

sepia portrait of victorian gentleman

Bell, Jacob (1810 - 1859). Self-portrait from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology

The Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society based in south-east London is taking an innovative approach to attracting new visitors to its collection by creating an online exhibition  'Jacob Bell and the Artists.'  Obi Chiejina entered the brave new world of web interactivity and arts heritage by visiting the exhibition in the comfort of her own home and asks is the online visitor experience as novel as it appears to be?

In the following extract taken from committee minutes, Joseph Ince recounts the tensions between Jacob Bell’s multiple roles as editor of the Pharmaceutical Journal, President of the Pharmaceutical Society and arts patron:

"The business of the committee was interrupted by outside visitors (i.e. artists) who had no connections with pharmacy whatsoever; chiefly by Sir Edwin Landseer, who rippled over with droll remark and conversation.”
Quote from 'Jacob Bell the Artists' exhibition

Part of Ince’s exasperation stemmed from his perception that Sir Edwin Landseer, a highly renowned portrait painter, was somewhat frivolous and lacked the serious academic gravitas of his fellow committee member Jacob. One also senses Ince struggled to reconcile the two sides of Bell as a shrewd manager and arts enthusiast. 

The relationship between science and the arts as personified by Ince and Landseer forms the basis of the subject of the online exhibition from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society ‘Jacob Bell and the Artists.’ From a biographical perspective the exhibition looks at the central role of religious non-conformism in giving Bell the moral courage to temporarily abandon the chemist/ druggist trade (the forerunner to the pharmacy profession) and his attempt to pursue a career as an artist.   

As a Quaker and religious outsider Bell was brought up to question the accepted norms of public life in Victorian society. The anti-conformist tradition led Jacob to give up Quakerism in his twenties and combine artistic studies with being an apprentice with his father’s chemist shop.  

Setting aside the radical tone of non-conformism Jacob seems to have been a creative and inventive character even by Quaker standards. This is evident in the anecdote of Bell dressing as a woman, the bizarre caricatures and unusual doodles documented in three sections of the exhibition, ‘Early years’, ‘The frustrated artist’ and ‘Bell and the Pharmacy’.

The final two sections ‘Later Life’ and ‘The Patron’ narrates Bell’s abandonment of life as an artist, the founding of the Pharmaceutical Society and life as a London arts patron.  Although he ceased to attend Quaker meetings in the 1850s the religion’s customs of the work ethic, keen business acumen and a desire for change gave Bell the impetus to straddle the worlds of science and arts with assurance in later life.        

Paradoxically Bell’s innovative contribution to the science-arts discourse seems to have been lost in the design of ‘Jacob Bell and the Painters.’ I enjoyed the experience of reading about Bell in the comfort of my home. But the online visitor experience is marred by an over reliance upon a formal academic approach i.e. chronological sequence of events and the use of extracts from archival and historical sources. Adopting a formal approach means there is little to distinguish between an offline visit to the Museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and navigating between web-pages, text and images in the online sphere.  

Judging by the decision to create the exhibition ‘Jacob Bell and the Artists’ the museum of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum is keen to reinvent itself as a leisure attraction complete with online events to entertain as well as educate the museum visitor.

However the Victorian ideal of providing intellectual stimulation still persists in this exhibition from the twenty-first century thereby reinforcing the two opposing worlds of scientific academia and the arts.

Click here to visit the Royal Pharmaceutical Society's online exhibition 'Jacob Bell and the Artists'

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