Martin Folkes and Voltaire

John Smith, Martin Folkes after Jonathan Richardson Senior, mezzotint, 1719 (1718), 340 x 249 mm paper size, © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Qui sera sera, ‘Who or What will be, will be’ is the opening phrase that Martin Folkes (1690-1754) chose as his personal motto and inscribed in his travel diaries of his Grand Tour in the 1730s. Folkes was Sir Isaac Newton’s protégé, an antiquary, freethinker, mathematician, numismatist and astronomer and the only simultaneous president of the Royal Society and of the Society of Antiquaries. Due to his Grand Tour and a subsequent voyage to France in 1739, Folkes became a member of the Académie royale des sciences, participant in French salon culture and a correspondent of one of its doyennes, Madame Marie Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin.

Folkes also had a wide circle of friends, including Voltaire with whom he corresponded. On 10 October 1739 Voltaire wrote to Folkes from Paris in reference to his Réponse aux objections principales qu’on a faites en France contre la philosophie de Newton, a tract he wrote in support of his Eléments de la philosophie de Newton (1738). Voltaire conceived of the Eléments as a ‘machine de guerre directed against the Cartesian establishment, which he believed was holding France back from the modern light of scientific truth’. Voltaire and Emilie Du Châtelet engaged in a campaign on behalf of Newtonianism, putting in their sights ‘an imagined monolith called French Academic Cartesianism as the enemy against which they in the name of Newtonianism were fighting’, the main artillery of their battle being Voltaire’s Eléments de la philosophie de Newton. Voltaire’s letter was written in a fit of pique (Voltaire, Correspondence, D2088):

Portret van Marie-Thérèse Rodet Geoffrin, anonymous, engraved by veuve Delpech (Naudet), between 1818 and 1842, 273 x 180 mm paper size, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

“Sir, I Do my self the honour to send you this little answer I was oblig’d to write against our antineutonian cavillers.

“I am but a man blind of one eye expostulating with stark blind people who deny, there is such Thing as a sun.

“I’ll be very happy if this conflict with ignorant philosophers may ingratiate my self with a such a true philosopher as you are.”

In 1743, upon his election to the Royal Society, three years before he was elected to the Académie française, Voltaire wrote to Folkes, again in some frustration with his continued fight for Newtonianism and against those irritatingly persistent Cartesian vortices. Voltaire also reminded Folkes of his visit to England fifteen years earlier and his acquaintance with Charles Lennox, the 2nd Duke of Richmond, James Jurin, scientist and physician, and ‘Mr Turner’, who was Shallet Turner, Regius professor of modern history and modern languages at Cambridge. For all his support of Newton, and his comments about Newton’s funeral and monument in Westminster Abbey, Newton and Voltaire had not met before Sir Isaac died in March 1727. During his stay in England from May 1726 until the autumn of 1728, Voltaire did, however, meet Newton’s niece Catherine Barton Conduitt, who told him the apple story, a story that Folkes also related, and Voltaire related twice in his writings.

William Hogarth (attributed to), Examining a watch; two men seated at a table, the older (Martin Folkes) looking through his eyeglasses at a watch, a paper headed ‘Votes of the Commons’ (?) on the table. Pen and brown (?) ink and wash, over graphite, c. 1 (British Museum).

The correspondence between Voltaire and Folkes, Newtonian to Newtonian, suggests a long acquaintance, though the letters were not frequent, as was also the case with Voltaire’s correspondence with other English philosophers. Was Voltaire introduced to Folkes before the 1730s, perhaps during Voltaire’s visit to London in 1726-28? It is possible. Lennox and Jurin were close friends of Folkes. As Norma Perry showed, Voltaire lived at the White Wig (known also as the White Peruke) on Maiden Lane, and was said to have dined at the Bedford Head Tavern, one of the places in the 1720s in which Folkes attended Masonic meetings as a Deputy Grand Master. As J. B. Shank has indicated, ‘given his other activities, it is also likely that Voltaire frequented the coffeehouses of London even if no firm evidence survives confirming that he did’.

Nicolas de Largillière (1656–1746), Voltaire, oil on canvas, c.1718-24, Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris (detail).

And at one of the coffee-houses, called Button’s, which was near Covent Garden Piazza on Russell Street, we may have some firmer evidence that Voltaire met Folkes. A sketch attributed to Hogarth c.1720 at Button’s depicts Martin Folkes examining a watch (he was a known collector of watches) with an unknown gentleman sitting beside him, handing him an obscure object, perhaps a knife to pry the watch open, a coin, or another timepiece. (For a discussion of this sketch, see note below.) In 1786, Samuel Ireland did an aquatint of Hogarth’s work, where he identifies the figures as Martin Folkes and playwright, author, and journalist Joseph Addison. Folkes’s physiognomy is readily discernible, but the latter identification is impossible, as Addison died in 1719.

The sketch of the unknown man sitting with Folkes does, however, have similarity to an oil portrait (and its copy) of the young Voltaire painted by Nicolas de Largillière done immediately before Voltaire’s visit to England. I had the great pleasure of examining the original drawing in the British Museum’s Print Room with Nicholas Cronk. With the proviso that likeness is not proof, the sketch and Largillière’s portrait both portray a heart-shaped face with defined cheekbones, straight eyebrows, a dimpled chin, and pronounced nose, with the same facial proportions. The artist was also known for his character studies, in which he skilfully delineated the salient features of the figure.

Closeup and reverse of the anonymous figure in the Hogarthian sketch.

The Hogarthian sketch also shows a young man of very slender body, a physiognomy borne out by Voltaire’s acquaintances when he was in London. As Ballantyne remarked, Voltaire ‘seems undoubtedly to have been in a sickly state of body during the whole period of his residence in England’; in a letter to Nicolas-Claude Thiriot of February 1729 (D344), Voltaire proclaimed: ‘j’y ai été très mal. J’y suis arrivé très faible.’ At the Palladian mansion of Eastbury in Dorset Voltaire had met Edward Young, the author of Night thoughts, who wrote the famous description of him after a discussion of Milton’s Paradise Lost: ‘You are so witty, profligate and thin, At once we think thee Milton, Death and Sin’.

As Voltaire did not speak English when he came to England, he spent a large portion of his time with the London Huguenot refugee community, with whom Folkes was well acquainted through the mathematician Abraham de Moivre, his childhood tutor, and he natural philosopher and clergyman John Theophilus Desaguliers, both of whom he also knew from his work in The Royal Society. Folkes also spoke fluent French and was intimately familiar with French natural philosophy. As Voltaire wished to publish his La Henriade, he also sought out Huguenot printers, who ultimately published it. Voltaire had presented a copy of his Essay upon the Civil Wars of France (1727) to Sir Hans Sloane, inscribing it in his own handwriting, indicating they had been acquainted; Folkes and Sloane, of course, knew each other intimately, serving together in The Royal Society. The evidence suggests that Voltaire and Folkes may have met in London and if so, Folkes would have been pleased that the relatively unknown young man he encountered in the 1720s had so distinguished himself to be admitted to The Royal Society two decades later. Whatever the case may be, the sketch presents an intriguing picture of eighteenth-century coffee-house life, and Folkes as an intriguing figure in intellectual history.

Cover of Anna Marie Roos, Martin Folkes (1690-1754): Newtonian, antiquary, connoisseur (Oxford, April 2021).

If you’d like to read more about Folkes, see my recently published book with Oxford University Press: Martin Folkes (1690-1754): Newtonian, antiquary, connoisseur. The portrait on the cover is by William Hogarth, presented by Folkes to The Royal Society in 1742.

Note on the Button’s sketch:

This drawing is part of a set of four owned by engraver and prints dealer Samuel Ireland, described in his Graphic illustrations of Hogarth (1794-1799) as a series of characters in Button’s coffee-house. Although Ireland is known for spurious attributions of characters portrayed in Hogarth’s works, Lawrence Binyon thought ‘the most plausible of Ireland’s identifications is that of Martin Folkes’, due to its similarity with the later Hogarth oil portrait; Binyon also firmly considered the drawings by Hogarth (Lawrence Binyon, Catalogue of drawings by British artists and artists of foreign origin working in Great Britain preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 4 vols, London, 1898-1907, vol.2, p.321). In the catalogue raisonné of Hogarth’s drawings, A. P. Oppé also mentions Ireland’s problematic attributions, but Hogarth is still identified by him as the artist due to the ‘careful, sensitive treatment of the faces’ and the clumsy bodies typical of Hogarth’s other works done at the time. He does note, however, that the drawing style and use of media are different from Hogarth’s early drawing style (A. P. Oppé, The Drawings of William Hogarth, New York, 1948, p.30-31). On the other hand Sheila O’Connell, retired assistant keeper of Prints and Drawings, British Museum, believes the set of drawings suspicious because of the Hogarthomania of the later eighteenth century (email of 15 August 2020). See also Sheila O’Connell, ‘Appendix: Hogarthomania and the collecting of Hogarth’, in David Bindman, ed., Hogarth and his times: serious comedy (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1997), p.58-61, on p.59. However, if the drawing is not by Hogarth, that does not mean it is not Folkes and Voltaire sketched by a contemporary. My thanks to Sheila O’Connell and Elizabeth Einberg for discussing the drawing with me.

Anna Marie Roos

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