Newton, the Man, or: of valuable lists and juicy quotes


Earlier this week I received a copy of an intriguing little volume, titled “Newton: The Man”. It was published in 1931 by a retired Engineer Corps Lieutenant-Colonel named Richard de Villamil, and has a preface by none other than Albert Einstein. As De Villamil states in his introduction,

This small book has no pretensions to being a “Life of Newton”; it is simply a small chapter in History and gives a view of Newton from a specially selected standpoint. Had it been in French I should probably have given it the title of Le Grand Newton en pantoufles, since that is the view of England’ s great genius that I have endeavoured to adopt. This title, however, cannot be translated into English without degeneration into burlesque ; the nearest I could get to it was Newton: the Man.

And indeed, it is far from a biography, and probably would not have survived a modern publisher’s editorial policies. In it, we find a series of loosely related notes concerning all sorts of facts and fiction surrounding Newton’s life. De Villamil is engaged with such diverse topics as Newton’s supposed loss of £ 20.000 in the notorious 1720 South Sea Bubble, Newton’s character, and the ever important question: did Newton own a dog?

Under the heading “His Puritanism” we even find De Villamil reconstructing Newton’s lack of humour:

Newton appears always to have taken everything au pied de la lettre. … There is no record that he ever made anything approaching a joke. We read that Halley once joked on what Newton considered a serious subject, and was sharply reprimanded for it. Newton was what one may call “deadly serious” on all questions. Almost puritanical. One could not imagine Newton laughing at a joke against himself.

And there is much more. But in essence, all of these snippets serve as a wrapper for two (or more precisely, three) major discoveries.

The discovery of Newton’s library

The first discovery was that of Newton’s own library, which had practically disappeared after his death. Via a curious route the library ended up in the possession of the Wykeham-Musgrave family, of Thame Park in Oxfordshire and Barnsley Park in Gloucestershire. When in 1920 Thame Park was sold by auction, many of Newton’s books were shipped over from Barnsley Park and included in the sale. As De Villamil recounts,

The Newton tradition having apparently been forgotten, there was no indication or suggestion in the sale catalogue that these hooks had formed part of Newton’s library, though, certainly, some were autographed. There was no notification even that they came from Barnsley Park. The books were sold in bundles (one bundle being, in fact, composed of 200 volumes!), as if of no special interest or value, and were sold, in consequence, at rubbish prices.

When he became aware that there were still a good deal of Newton’s books left at Barnsley Park, De Villamil rushed over to Gloucestershire and starting cataloguing. That is when he came across an equally important discovery, namely a catalogue of Newton’s library made in the 1760s. Together with a second, rather inaccurate, but still very useful list of Newton’s books as they were sold after Newton’s death, this list forms the basis of our modern understanding of the contents of Newton’s library and his likewise interests, and allows us to try and find the books that have since gone missing.

An inventory of Newton’s belongings

The second discovery De Villamil made is maybe of less interest to a student of Newton’s works, but of much importance to a student of Newton’s life, and that of his times: a document titled “True and Perfect Inventary of all and Singular the Goods Chattels and Credits of Sir Isaac Newton.” It is an incredibly detailed list, even so complete and detailed that De Villamil exclaims that “we could easily refurnish every room in Newton’s house (if it still existed) as it was at the time of his death.” Through a 1787 publication De Villamil found out about the existence of the inventory, and of all places it turned up in Canterbury. To give but an example of the list, consider the description of Newton’s workroom:

In the fore room two pairs of stairs. Item a walnut tree cabinet and writing desk with drawers two hundred and ten prints forty articles in Dutch in nineteen sheets a book of maps and six others three old weather glasses a large table with drawers six cases of shelves a pair of steps a small piece of tapestry and some Irish stich hangings three globes a copper plate a silver watch a Bath mettle case of instruments a shagreen case Do. a small penknife an embroidered purse two plaistered heads and two small pictures

All of which was valued by the members of the Commission of Appraisement as being worth 22 Pounds and 4 Shillings. I am, by the way, rather intrigued by the mention of those “forty articles in Dutch in nineteen sheets” – as far as I know Newton did not read Dutch.

There is much more in here which is of great interest. An online edition of Newton the Man, including the inventory and the catalogue of Newton’s library, can be found here, together with lots of other useful materials (although the site does not seem to have been updated for nearly fifteen years). This book should not be read for its faithful representation of Newton’s life and deeds: although it contains many factual accuracies about Newton, it contains at least an equal number of rather inaccurate conclusions derived from these facts. But it is extremely valuable for the inventories of Newton’s books and belongings that it presents, and as a historiographical witness: this is Newton scholarship in the 1930s.

To finish this post, one more wonderful, juicy De Villamil quote:

It would certainly appear that Newton during his latter days was, metaphorically, raised on a pedestal and almost venerated as a divinity. Alexander Chalmers refers to Dr. Kiell (Secretary of the Royal Society) as saying:

“If all the philosophy and mathematics were considered as consisting of ten points, nine of these would be found entirely of his discovery and invention.”Also the Marquis de l’Hôpital is quoted as saying:

“Does he eat, drink and sleep like other men? . . . I represent him to myself as a celestial genius, entirely disengaged from matter.”Human nature (and Newton was very human) cannot endure such an atmosphere without the character suffering. The only wonder is that Newton did not become absolutely conceited – which he never did.


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