A Tale of Two Knights

William Ramsay

"Chemistry," a 1908 chromolithograph of William Ramsay by Leslie Ward. Fisher Collection, CHF Collections.

With his left hand resting casually on his pocket, a piece of chalk between his fingers, the benevolent professor with lifted eyebrows and a mustache that barely contains a smile teaches his class about the noble gases. The other character in this scene is represented only by a signature scrawled next to the professor’s knee. The artist, Leslie Ward, the famed illustrator known as “Spy,” and the professor, William Ramsay, discoverer of the noble gases, are brought together in this 1908 chromolithograph printed in Vanity Fair. Both men received the high honor of British knighthood but for entirely different reasons.

In 1873 “Spy” assumed “Ape’s” position as lead cartoonist for the weekly British society journal Vanity Fair. Ward’s pseudonym seems fitting. During his 40 years at the magazine he covertly followed London society figures, eventually producing more than 1,000 caricatures. He was knighted in 1918 for his artistic work.

Published in London from 1868 until 1914, Vanity Fair was the most popular of the British society magazines, known particularly for its illustrations of the rich and famous. Ward once said, “When the history of the Victorian Era comes to be written in true perspective, the most faithful mirror and record of . . . the spirit of the times will be sought and found in Vanity Fair.” Luckily for chemistry enthusiasts, Spy’s definition of the “spirit of the times” included the latest in science.

Not least in prominence was William Ramsay, pictured here in Spy’s illustration “Chemistry.” In the cartoon Ramsay points to the finding that won him the Nobel Prize four years earlier—his discovery of the noble gases. In 1894, while studying the molecular nature of liquids, Ramsay read about a question posed by leading physicist John William Strutt, Lord Rayleigh. Rayleigh noticed that nitrogen isolated from air always weighed more than nitrogen produced in the lab. In an unusual scientific partnership Ramsay and Rayleigh collaborated on this puzzle, exchanging letters almost daily.

In the summer of 1894 the two researchers announced to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) the discovery of a new atmospheric gas. Named argon for the Greek word for lazy, this new gas initially proved inert. After argon’s discovery Ramsay continued to investigate the atmosphere, eventually isolating helium (previously known only to exist in the sun), neon, krypton, and xenon. His discoveries led to the development of a new section of the periodic table.

Ramsay’s students at University College, London, remembered him as a kind professor and a strong supporter of science education. Perhaps for this reason Ward drew Ramsay in a classroom, eagerly teaching students about his latest research. The illustration corroborates this description of Ramsay printed in 1900: “Ramsay possesses those qualities which appeal most strongly to the student: a frank genial man ner, ready sympathy, and, above all, an enthusiasm for his subject which inspires all who come under his influence.”

In addition to this chromolithograph of William Ramsay, CHF owns several of Ward’s other Vanity Fair illustrations, including “Steel,” a portrait of Sir Henry Bessemer, and “Natural Philosophy,” a caricature of Lord Kelvin.