The Collections of Lewis Evans


2015-06-26 11:59:27


The Collections of Lewis Evans

The businessman and scientific instrument collector

Lewis Evans was born in 1853 to Sir John Evans, an archaeologist, and Harriet Ann Dickinson.

Evans studied chemistry at University College London, but before and after his studies he went on expeditions into the Balkans with his brother, Arthur Evans who made notes and sketches about the people and places.

The second of these was particularly adventuroussince Bosnia-Herzegovina was under martial law as the Serbs/Christians were resisting Bosnian control. The Evans brothers avoided provoking either the Serbs or the Ottomans, but were briefly jailed by the Austro-Hungarians.

This was unnecessary, as the officials merely needed convincing that the sketches they had taken were not due to their being Russian spies. Unfortunately, Arthur was so awkward about producing their passports ("Tell him that we are Englishmen and are not accustomed to being treated in this way.") that the infuriated chief official locked them in a cell.

Arthur Evans went on to become a distinguished archaeologist, most famous for the disinterring of the palace of Knossos on the Greek island of Crete. Lewis, whilst he concentrated on running the family paper business, also retained his enthusiasm for science and travel- and expressed it through collecting.

Evans's inspiration was perhaps his great-grandfather and namesake, the Rev. Lewis Evans FRS, (a mathematician and astronomer) from whom he inherited Godwin's cardboard astrolabe dated 1802.

Astrolabes are historical astronomical instruments used by astronomers and navigators, and were a crucial tool for scientists and thinkers from both classical Greece and Rome, and the Islamic Golden Age through the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe.

They were used originally as an analogue calendar to help find the times of sunrise and the rising of fixed stars, from a particular latitude and then later, conversely to determine a navigator's latitude.

These also influenced the first astronomical clocks, and indeed in 1985 the Swiss watchmaker Dr Ludwig Oechslin designed and built an astrolabe wristwatch in conjunction with Ulysse Nardin.

Universal Astrolabe created by Anthoine Mestrel in 1551Universal Astrolabe created by Anthoine Mestrel in 1551

Over a period of 50 years, he assembled a world-class collection of astrolabes and other scientific instruments from London, Paris, Venice, Florence, Milan, Monte Carlo, Algeria and many other places. Unlike the cardboard piece, these were not free.

Indeed Evans clearly tested his finances in pursuit of the collection, paying between 30 and 120 for most of the pieces and an eye-watering 1,450 for an Arsenius astrolabe acquired at the Roussel sale in Paris in March 1911 - an enormous sum for the time (around 120,000 in modern terms).

Around this time, Lewis used his collection to head two great exhibitions. His contribution for the 1910 exhibition is described as:

"A Series of Astrolabes from various countries, covering the period from A. D. 1067 to about 1600' together with 'A Collection of Portable Sundials, Star-dials or Nocturnals, and early Quadrants including a Roman dial of the third century, and instruments from Japan, China, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain."

Johannes Stoffer's workDetail from Johannes Stffler's work

Evans also acquired a world-class collection of rare books on scientific uses of the instruments including the much sought-afterElucidatio Fabricae ususque Astrolabii - a manual of the construction and use of the astrolabe- by Johannes Stffler, of which the first edition was published in 1513.

This collection is exceptionally rich in rare books on these specialised subjects from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and in at least nine languages. There are about 1,000 printed works altogether, and over 100 volumes in manuscript, including Evans's own publications on sundials.

Evans finally donated his collection to Oxford University in 1922 (or 1925 when an appropriate building was found and the loan became permanent), as a way of founding the Museum of the History of Science there, including the Lewis Evans library.

Housed in the Ashmolean building, the collection remains a key pillar for knowledge of the history of science, in a city renowned the world-over for its learning, to this day.

Images: Museum of the History of Science, Oxford (main images), Universal Images (astrolabe quadrant thumbnail)

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