In 1664, scientist Robert Hooke drew a flea and created the first great work of British art. Without it, perhaps, there would be no Stubbs, Constable and Hirst

On a January day in 1665 the diarist Samuel Pepys found time to flirt with a servant, go to bed mid-morning with his friend Betty Martin (noting ruefully that he spent “2 s. in wine and cake upon her”), have a massive lunch and finally make his way through filthy streets to a bookshop, where he saw the new work Micrographia by the scientist Robert Hooke. When Pepys got the book – “which is so pretty that I presently bespoke it” – home he sat up into the small hours gazing at its pictures.

They are still astounding today. A freakishly large ant seems to crawl across a page. A pair of compound eyes glare back at you. Most startling of all, a gigantic flea escapes from the book on to a fold-out sheet. This insect, not much more than a dot to the naked eye, displays formidable armour plating, articulated limbs and a fierce face. It has spiky hairs on its smoothly segmented exoskeleton. Hooks extend from its legs. Its eye is cruel. Fleas have been the unwanted companions of humans for as long as we’ve existed. Yet no one had ever seen one like this. Hooke’s flea is both pioneering science and the first great work of British art.

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