19 June 2006

Social Relationships: Berg’s Relationship to the Society of Arts

It seems obvious that membership in an institution like the Society of Arts would appeal to George Berg for several reasons. As a member, he could contribute his expertise as a professional musician and his experiences as an amateur chemist and glassmaker to the public good. Such organizations might provide him with opportunities to discuss his findings in practical chemistry. If creating new or improved saleable glasses was one of Berg’s goals, membership in an improvement or investigation society might allow him to develop friendships with those better able to exploit his discoveries.

The verifiable aspects of Berg’s institutional affiliations negate our assumptions to some extent. Berg was elected a member of the Society of Arts in 1769—ten years after he began his project—and there is no evidence that he was a member of any other similarly oriented group. Even Berg’s connections to the Society of Arts are not as straightforward as we might hope. There is no record of his participation—no meeting attendance or letters—before April 1772. Between 1772 and 1774, Berg attended only a dozen meetings.[13] Committee records indicate his presence at meetings of the Polite Arts, Mechanical Arts, and Chemistry committees during those years. Berg’s participation was limited, however, and he contributed to the evaluation of only two submissions. One evaluation, in 1774, concerned a machine to teach music to the blind. Berg urged its rejection, finding it no better than devices already available.[14]

Berg was more actively involved with the Chemistry Committee, however. He attended seven meetings of that group during the first ten weeks of 1773, and he tested samples of white copper on its behalf. But this activity adds further confusion rather than clarity to his connections with the Society of Arts and to his own explorations of chemistry. White copper is a silver-colored alloy of copper and zinc or other metals. Initially a Chinese import, it was considered valuable as a less expensive replacement for silver. Berg was one of three supplemental examiners of a locally produced white copper. His report, included in the committee minutes, makes clear that he approached this assignment with a characteristic diligence.[15]

Why was Berg chosen to test this material, or why did he volunteer? We can conjecture that his interest in white copper was an outgrowth of his chemistry studies. My initial assumption was that white copper was used as a support or substrate for enamels, giving a luster to the colors similar to that of silver but at a lower cost. This use would be of interest to Berg, as the alloy might require adjustments to his enamel formulas. Yet there is no evidence that this was a common or expected use for white copper in the eighteenth century. Furthermore, as we know from the experiment book that Berg did not test the enamels he made, leaving this task to his artisan associates, discussion of the possibilities of white copper would seem to be a reasonable finding. In the experiment book, Berg’s sole mention of this substance describes dissolving a small portion to use in a formula for a dark-green enamel color.[16]

We must conclude then, that activities at the Society of Arts played an indirect role in George Berg’s chemistry and glassmaking experiments.


At 30 June, 2006, Blogger Sarah Lowengard said...

A discussion above (in the "Social Relationships" section) has prompted me to wonder:

What would someone like George Berg, a persistent amateur of chemistry or glassmaking, hope to gain from membership in the SoA?

Membership was not a requirement to submit an innovation. Berg's relationship to Samuel More and William Lewis ante-dated his election so it was not access to those men. On that note, too, it was surprising to me to discover that Berg never mentions Robert Dossie in his notebook.

Dossie was another prominent apothecary-member of the SoA, and the author of Handmaid to the Arts (1758, 2d ed. 1764, plus several foreign translations and pirated editions), which is now one of the standard reference works about 18th century art/artisan techniques--including glassmaking and enameling. Why this absence of connection to another like-minded person affilated with the Society of Arts?


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