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Mary Somerville

1 of 5 portraits of Mary Somerville

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Mary Somerville

by Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey
pencil, 1832
19 1/8 in. x 25 5/8 in. (486 mm x 651 mm)
Given by Mrs George Jones, 1871
Primary Collection
NPG 316a(114)

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  • Mary Somerville (1780-1872), Scientific scholar and writer. Sitter in 5 portraits.

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  • 100 Pioneering Women, p. 52 Read entry

    Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish mathematician and scientist, and a proponent of the emancipation and education of women. Born in Jedburgh, to Admiral Sir William Fairfax, an early chance encounter with algebra stirred her curiosity, which, with a will to learn and a move to London in 1816, drew her into intellectual and scientific circles. Although she was a highly intelligent woman, her grasp of advanced mathematics was not always appreciated in a world that expected little of her gender. Her glittering career in the male-dominated world of science and mathematics was consolidated by the success of The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831), then The Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834). In a preface to the latter, she expressed her wish ‘to make the laws by which the material world is governed, more familiar to my countrywomen’. Somerville Hall, Oxford, named in honour of her, was founded in 1879. Its founders identified her as ‘a public intellectual in an age against women pursuing academic careers’, thereby declaring their ambition for their women students. Somerville is seen here in preparatory sketches for a marble bust in the Royal Society.

  • Lydia Miller; Samira Ahmed, Inspirational Women: Rediscovering stories in Art, Science and Social Reform, 2022, p. 86
  • Ormond, Richard, Early Victorian Portraits, 1973, p. 424
  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 575
  • Walker, Richard, Regency Portraits, 1985, p. 624

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Current affairs

William IV agrees to the creation of new peers in order to obtain the passage of the Reform Act, although this proved unnecessary when the Tories withdrew opposition. Male franchise is extended by fifty percent; fifty-six 'rotten boroughs' lose representation and forty-one new constituencies are created. Irish and Scottish Reform Acts are also passed.

Art and science

Mathematician Charles Babbage publishes his best selling Economy of Machinery and Manufactures. In response to recent outbreaks of machine-breaking and riots, he aimed to reveal the sources of Britain's industrial strength to the urban elite and promote institutional change.
Parliament votes funds for National Gallery buildings in Trafalgar Square.

International

Free land grants end for English settlers in Australia on recommendation of the leading colonisation theorist Edward Wakefield in his Letter from Sydney.
Greek independence recognised by the Treaty of London.

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