Special Collections

Francis Willughby (1635 - 1672)

In the history of science, the 17th century was a period of exciting change. While England was enduring political and religious turmoil, reaching a climax in civil war and the execution of Charles I, a spirit of speculative enquiry encouraged the testing of traditional knowledge. A new view emerged of man’s place in the natural world. In 1660, the restored monarch, Charles II, gave his approval to the foundation of the Royal Society, whose aims were to promote discovery through observation and experiment. Physicians, academics, merchants and men of property debated scientific findings and speculated about their practical application in the wider world.

Francis Willughby, whose estates in the Midlands supported an independent life of travel and study, was an original member of the Society. His influential work on birds and fish was published after his death by the naturalist John Ray (1627-1705), but the scope of Willughby’s other studies remained largely unknown.

This exhibition draws on papers preserved in the Middleton Collection, the family archive of the Willughbys of Wollaton Hall, now held by The University of Nottingham.

Informed by recent research, the display reveals the extent of Willughby’s collaboration with Ray. It throws new light on the range of his interests, illustrated by images of birds, fish and plants which were collected in England, Wales and on the Continent to support his studies.

Image: From Mi Lm 24. Watercolours and engravings of birds mid 17th-early 18th century.