6-7. John Woodward's Cabinet

Object type: Fallfront Cabinet, ca. 1725

Materials: Walnut, Poplar, Brass, and Stone

Location: Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge.

Notes: Contains Woodward's collection of earths and minerals.

© Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences

Location in MIAC: DESIGN

Seldom before had anyone been so associated with a place as John Woodward was with his cabinet.  By “cabinet,” here, we mean something like “study” or “office.”  As a professional man, Woodward (1665-1728) was a physician, but in his free time, he was a geologist and collector of stones.  The cabinet was where he assembled this collection, in five custom fall-front walnut cases, each with two rows of drawers.  The whole arrangement, which, despite having been shuffled around institutions, is more-or-less as he left it, can be seen in the Sedgwick Museum at Cambridge.  Faithful to the terms of his will, the cabinet has remained entire, complete with its collection of rocks and earths.  It is the oldest complete collection to have survived to the present day, and presents therefore a rare opportunity to consider the habits of early modern collecting.

By some accounts, Woodward was the first geologist—the man who modernized geology—and, looked at this way, his cabinet was the site where the first modern theories of geology find their source. Woodward’s museum was put together with the assistance of hundreds of correspondents, for whom he published a short treatise on the proper methods of collection.  It is in this document that the phrase “rock hammer” first appears, so it may be that Woodward was a minor pioneer in the technical implements of geology; but it is also here that Woodward first insists on accurate accounts of where rock specimens were collected—at what depth, in what place, and so on.  This is in part because it was Woodward, working in his cabinet, who first started thinking about the importance of geological strata for telling a story about the history of the world.  This was his critical contribution.  From a rigorously developed method, Woodward proposed the first synoptic or totalizing explanation of the Earth’s history, based on readings of natural layers of rock.  Woodward was consumed by this sublime idea, which he first proposed at the age of 30, and which he elaborated, in various forms, over the course of his life. 

This is where Woodward’s status as a forward-looking man of modern geology ends, however, for he was also mired in Renaissance thought in some curious ways.  For Woodward’s theory about geological development hinged entirely on a theory of the Great Flood—the Biblical story of 40 days’ rain that launched Noah in his Ark.  The idea was this: the all-powerful Creator, appalled at what he was seeing on the planet he built, elected to mix up all its components and start again.  This he did through a simple suspension of gravity, casting Earth into a chaos of rain and mud.  When, on the fortieth day, natural law was restored, the Earth’s elements once again sank into their places, according to their relative densities: rocks, then earths, then water and air.  The suddenness of this phase of drying-out, of the return of things to their spheres, was meant to account for the strata visible in naturally occurring stone.  It also accounts for the shapes of things, not only the irregularities of a planet marked by mountains and valleys, but also the wear visible on stones, as they were ground down in the rush and precipitation of water running back to the sea. 

The "General Index" to Woodward's  An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England (1728-29), xv.  Image from archive.org.

The "General Index" to Woodward's  An Attempt Towards a Natural History of the Fossils of England (1728-29), xv.  Image from archive.org.

This was Woodward’s sublime vision—and the single idea to which his cabinet tends.  It is visible in the arrangement of stones in the cabinet, which are generally arranged according to the strata where they might have been found, which is another way of saying that Woodward placed earths and pebbles above rocks and ores.  Sometimes, it is true, he seems to have had to have cleaned up situations where pebbles might have occurred beneath ores, or earths beneath rock, but this was a part of how his cabinet helped him arrive at a vision of geological history.  What is more, the general arrangement of things according to their densities is visible in the catalogue he made of his museum, which was also his greatest defense of his theory.  The table of contents loosely matches the arrangement of stones, proceeding from earths to ores, in order of the density of things.  It is in this way that Woodward abstracted a mass of rock into an abstract theory, indeed, into sublime vision of geological history.  And it has all the trappings of a scientific breakthrough, including the the kind of elegance, the stunning simplicity, that is often the hallmark of a truly original and world-making idea.  (See for instance Michael Polanyi's remarks on elegance in Personal Knowledge.)

Of course, Woodward was admired less for this idea than he might have been.  In a word, he was satirized for it—sometimes coarsely—in protracted pamphlet debates.  His theory was called the “bagg-pudding” theory of the Great Deluge; a bag pudding is a slurry of suet, flour, currants, and other bits and pieces of things.  But Woodward was an easy target for satire for other reasons.  For one thing, he was himself extremely aggressive in print; he had a reputation for being self-absorbed and unlikable.  His personal appearance left him vulnerable.  He had a high-pitched, effeminate voice, which comes up repeatedly in the crudest attacks.  He also seems to have evinced a love of young boys, cultivating several protégés through the church choir.  The whispers were general enough that even foreign visitors heard them.  Woodward was accused of the love which has no name (“criminis non facile nominandi,” writes one visitor), which, while surely unfair if he merely preferred the company of men, was probably deserved if he was a serial pedophile.  But in the way that personal lives so often invade professional discourse, especially where grand theories and fresh controversies arise, Woodward was especially vulnerable.

And it must be admitted that he was transparently consumed by his image of himself as a man of science.  I mean this quite literally.  Woodward was well-enough known through his circle of correspondents that people made long treks to visit his cabinet, in order to see his theory in action.  Evidently Woodward's cabinet was formerly graced with numerous mirrors—interspersed with his magnificent collection of stones.  During tours of his cabinet, it seems, Woodward would at times consult certain stones, explaining their properties, and linking them to the theory of history he believed them to support.  But, at others, he would evidently consult his own image, continuing to speak of his theory, while gazing at his reflection in one or more of the large mirrors which were hung there.  He was, in other words, seeing himself at the center of his collection, as its single principle and the thing that explained that large collection of things.  This habit was so pronounced that Woodward would at times call for his “lad” to make up a basin of warm water so he might shave and perform small acts of personal grooming, making his visitors wait and observe the performance.

This is what I mean, then, by a man associated with his cabinet, as Woodward was associated with his own.  There are just two more points that I want to make about this arrangement of person and things, which, as I have been suggesting, form an ecology, a space of thought where modern geology was born. 

Stone c.226, a "flinty peble," that was the first Woodward ever took notice of, or bothered to collect. (c) Department of Earth Sciences and Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge.

The first has to do with the way that ideas can take their rise from things.  Among the objects in his collection is a certain stone, a small oval pebble, of an otherwise generic sort.  It has a special place in Woodward’s biography, however.  It was, he says, the first stone he ever took notice of—the object that kicked off his love of rocks in the first place.  And it has, when viewed through Woodward’s eyes, some special properties.  For one thing, it contains, itself, a certain striation, a different material running like a longways slash across the stone.  This striation, by Woodward’s account, of course proves his theory of the Deluge, which his catalogue of the stone in its roundabout way makes clear.  But the truly interesting thing is that Woodward collected this stone years before he came up with his theory of the history of the Earth.  That is, the stone seems in a way to have collected Woodward, rather than the other way around; the stone called out to him, only later prompting the world-changing idea and the swerve in Woodward’s life and career.  Had Woodward not seen this stone, it may be that  he would only have been remembered as an irascible old physician.  The shape of this stone therefore seems important to me in ways not remarked by Woodward—including that it looks strikingly like a lidded human eye; I discuss these questions in more depth in the book The Mind is a Collection.

John Woodward, by an Unknown hand.  Image (c) Department of Earth Sciences and Sedgwick Museum, University of Cambridge.

The second thing is this.  Perhaps it was necessary to have a man like Woodward to launch a science—someone who gave himself completely to his study, identifying so wholly with a novel conception that he learned to love it, and to love himself, as a geologist.  Obviously, he is an extreme example.  But it was his love of himself as a geologist that caused the collection to survive.  For Woodward left his cabinet and the bulk of his wealth to endow a chair at Cambridge, the so-called “Woodwardian Chair,” which was the first of its kind in the empirical sciences, and which is now the most prestigious named chair in geology.  The terms of the will are enlightening.  Woodward insisted that only bachelors accept the position, that they spend time in his cabinet, and that they give tours and regular lectures on his theory.  The cabinet, in other words, became a kind of Woodward-machine, producing copies of the man after his death.  It is in this light that I find a certain adjustment interesting.  There are no longer any mirrors to be found there.  Instead, there is only an oval portrait of Woodward himself, which stares back, unblinking, like a mirror that only reflects one image.  Whoever you might be when you enter the cabinet, in an important sense, you become Woodward when you enter his space of thought.

Notes: The best biography of John Woodward remains Joseph Levine's extraordinary Dr. Woodward's Shield (1997), which tells the story of Woodward and his age through on controversial antiquarian object he acquired.  On Woodward's influence, see Roy Porter, The Making of Geology (1974).  For further resources, please consult the relevant pages in The Mind is a Collection (Penn 2015).