Intended for healthcare professionals

Fillers One hundred years ago

Art and nature

BMJ 2003; 326 doi: (Published 04 January 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;326:41

Mr. T. A. Cook's Spirals in Nature and Art is a book which will appeal to artists and men of science alike. The author describes it on the title page as “A Study of Spiral Formations, based on the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, with special reference to the architecture of the open staircase at Blois, in Touraine, now, for the first time, shown to be from his designs.” The book will be found extremely interesting, not only because its subject centres in Leonardo da Vinci, that wonderful painter, man of science, engineer, biologist, mathematician, and architect, but also because, as Professor Ray Lankester in his preface points out, “the training which he (Mr. Cook) received in Paris has emboldened him to enter upon a course of speculative generalization which a more restricted method of study might have prevented. He looks, in fact, upon the results of others' labours with a mind that is more ready to perceive its general value than are those intellects which have concentrated a unique energy upon a single set of problems.” When Mr. Cook compares certain architectural beauties with certain natural forms—for example, the spiral staircase at Blois (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci) with the spiral structure of the shell of a mollusc—the resemblance is seen to be obvious, and the beauty and fitness of each is perceived at once. This suggests that the artist, in striking out this spiral form, has been moved or inspired by some deeply underlying natural law, the coincidence implying that there is a rational basis for aesthetics to be discovered; the artist or architect should endeavour, as did the best minds of da Vinci's day, to grasp the problems of proportion in architecture, reflecting the laws of construction and growth exemplified throughout organic life. They should go to Nature and study the ways in which she has solved problems of an allied if not directly comparable kind, and solved them always in a way which gratifies the aesthetic sense of man.

If this be true, then the human aesthetic sense is shown to have its place in the true order of Nature—to be a reflex of, or part of, that order. Da Vinci evolved his theory of spirals not only from shell forms, but also from climbing plants; in the dressing of women's hair, as in the study for the “Leda,” he closely follows the coils of the ammonite; he noted that the spiral formation of a screw suggested the movements of a flying bird; and among his drawings are studies of the curves of waves and of the effects of currents upon the banks of the mainland and of islands. (BMJ 1903;i:377)