Until the fairly recent advent – or wider use – of photography, astronomers had to rely on artists (or indeed use their own artistic skills!) to record the objects they observed, and disseminate these images to fellow scientists and the public alike. Stimulated by the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, I am using a series of blog entries to share some of the museum’s collection of art related to astronomy.
Last week, I wrote about aurorae. This week, I am inspired by the category ‘Skyscapes’, which includes landscape and cityscape shots of twilight and the night sky. The photographs belonging to this category can be extraordinarily affecting, for they evoke in spectacular ways our planet’s unique relationship with the cosmos, but also give a sense of how small, precious and delicate Earth is in the vast universe.
Among our astronomical collections are a number of images produced in response to the emerging popular science market for home educational use in the early 19th century. From 1846, James Reynolds published a set of astronomical prints (more of these in forthcoming blog entries), among which is this example of an ‘extreme’ skyscape, drawn and engraved by John Emslie.
This imaginary depiction displays a wide range of atmospheric phenomena (numbered, listed, and explained overleaf), both meteorological and astronomical: meteors, zodiacal light, parhelia (mock suns) and aurora. The print shows the sublime nature of these occurrences, at once beautiful and unnerving, if not terrifying - the association with storms, maelstroms and waterspouts reinforces this feeling.
Other prints function as records of specific astronomical events, such as this Representation of the Meteor Seen at Paddington about 12 Minutes before 11 o'clock, on the Evening of the 11th of Feb. 1850, drawn by the painter and sculptor Matthew Cotes Wyatt.
As a medium, mezzotint is particularly suited to the contrasted view of a bright exploding meteor in an otherwise pitch black sky, its romantic effect emphasized by the melancholy silhouettes of the London rooftops. The print was however specifically produced with the purpose that “a faithfully graphic exhibition of its appearance might be more generally diffused” and indeed, the event was widely reported, in the Illustrated London News, and observed by George Biddell Airy, Astronomer Royal at Greenwich.
One astronomer who relied on his own, self-taught, artistic skills was Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819–1900), a fascinating character by all accounts, who became Astronomer Royal for Scotland in 1846. Smyth learnt his first rudiments of astronomy from his father, the naval officer and astronomer William Henry Smyth, before being appointed as Her Majesty’s Astronomer Sir Thomas Maclear’s assistant at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. There, Smyth observed Halley’s Comet in 1835-6, and the Kruetz sungrazing comet, also known as the 'Great Comet' of 1843. It was called as such because of the extreme length and brightness of its tail, characteristics that Smyth recorded in two dramatic paintings:
The first shows the comet in daylight, juxtaposed with the sun, in the majestic setting of Table Bay. In the foreground, figures in small boats gesture towards the wondrous sight.
The other view is even more spectacular, the long tail of the comet detaching itself elegantly amid a star-studded sky, the orange blaze of sunset still visible on the horizon. A lone spectator looks up at the awe-inspiring spectacle, his tiny figure evoking the huge scale of the comet.
While these two paintings may be considered as works of art in their own right, Smyth made great use of watercolour to record his observations. In fact, in 1843 he published a paper on the usefulness of astronomical drawing, to fulfil the need for accurate visual recordings, and their subsequent reproduction for wider circulation. Interestingly, Smyth was one of the first astronomers to make use of the photographic medium, an invention which would be of tremendous importance for the development and diffusion of astronomical knowledge.
Comets were also depicted by artists purely for their aesthetic qualities. The marine painter John Everett undertook extensive sea voyages during which he produced hundreds of sketches of the sea at all times of the day and under various climatic effects. One of these small seascapes depicts a comet piercing the night sky over choppy seas. The impressionistic handling of the paint is well suited to the atmospheric feel of the scene.
The night sky object most favoured by artists is the moon. In an art collection largely devoted to the sea, it will not come as a surprise that we have many wonderful paintings showing artists taking up the challenge of rendering the fleeting effects of the moon reflected on a large expanse of moving water.
In Monamy Swaine’s Ship Saluting, the moonlight also reverberates on the clouds and the sails of the ships.
Some artists even specialised in moonlit scenes. Henry Pether was one of them, and created many views of the Thames bathed in a graceful, silvery glow, such as this one:
Everett, of course, also painted moonlit seascapes, like the nervously sketched scene below:
Until my next blog post, I shall leave you, for now, with the ghostly, enigmatic, features of the Arctic Moon.