Whilst portraits survive of many of Hooke’s contemporaries, the same cannot be said of Hooke himself. Although there is evidence to suggest that one did exist, its whereabouts are unrecorded following a reference to it in 1710. Besides two descriptions of Hooke recorded by those who knew him in life, we cannot be sure of what he looked like.
Although much emphasis is often placed on it, even this 1710 reference to a painting of Hooke seen hanging in the Royal Society meeting room by Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach has been questioned. No further record of a painting of Hooke in this location, or indeed anywhere, has been found. No portrait is mentioned in a posthumous inventory of Hooke’s possessions, Royal Society meeting minutes or donation lists, or by James Yonge, another visitor to the Society, who made a list of eleven portraits hanging on the walls of the Council Room which does not feature Hooke. It is therefore possible that this portrait never existed to begin with and that von Uffenbach was mistaken.
When the Royal Society moved to a new location, overseen by Sir Isaac Newton as President, any painting of Hooke that may have hung on a wall in the old Gresham College premises was lost. There are rumours that Newton destroyed Hooke’s portrait in an attempt to erase his memory. It is not outside of the realms of possibility – even the Royal Society admit Newton had the motive and opportunity – but it seems to be little more than hearsay.
Beyond the painting which may or may not have been owned by the Royal Society, there have been several other potential Hooke likenesses, although none of them have been authenticated. Hooke himself records in his diary that he was drawn by a ‘Mr Bonust’, although no further mention of this figure exists and the name, as Hooke spells it, is untraceable to any known artist. It is possible he refers to Bownest, a name that is linked to an engraving of Arthur Jackson in the National Portrait Gallery. If this is the case, this drawing has never been found.
Numerous portraits have been found and claimed to be of Hooke, only to quickly be disproven. Time magazine published one in 1939, but it was found to hold no credible link to the scientist and matched neither of the contemporary descriptions that exist of him. Historian Lisa Jardine cited another painting that has been thought of as depicting naturalist John Ray rather to be Hooke in 2003, but her theory was later disproven and the subject was found to be Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont.
Most recently, Larry Griffing has posed that the identity of Mary Beale’s unknown sitter in “Portrait of a Mathematician” could be Hooke. The painting is contemporary with Hooke and he and the artist were known to have met. However, no explicit link has yet been proven, despite Griffing’s attempts to connect the scientific instrument on the table, the sketch on the subject’s notepaper, and the landscape in the background to Hooke.
Beyond paintings, further potential depictions have been identified: a seal used by Hooke himself features a man in profile that some have claimed is the scientist; an image in the 1728 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopedia depicts the drawing of a bust of Robert Hooke, but its unknown if any original of this bust ever existed. These, too, cannot be confirmed as likenesses.
In light of the lack of contemporary images of Hooke, artist Rita Greer created a series of oil paintings based on the two eye witness descriptions, which feature some of the inventions and theories he is most known for. Such images now accompany many articles and publications that are written about Hooke, but unfortunately many of the erroneous identifications persist and it is just as possible to see an image of Jan Baptist van Helmont beside Hooke’s name.