The Great Comet of 1843

A night-time view showing an eyewitness account of the Great Comet of 1843, painted by the astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth.
The earliest observation occurred on the evening of 5 of February, 1843 and Smyth recorded its appearance at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, South Africa between 3 and 6 of March. When at its greatest brilliance, it was visible only from southern latitudes. The view in the painting is probably taken from the Observatory. It shows Table Bay with Table Mountain visible in the background on the left. A large sailing ship sits in the foreground on the right, with other shipping in the distance. Since the main purpose of the painting was to show the comet, the sky dominates the image. The comet formed a disk and Smyth described its nucleus as 'a planetary disk, from which rays emerged in the direction of the tail'. He observed that to the naked eye it appeared to have a double tail, with the two streamers proceeding from the head in perfectly straight lines. The tail of the comet holds the record for actual extent and the sighting was notable because of the intensity of light, apparently outshining any comet seen in the previous seven centuries, as well as for the length of its tail.

The painting shows the dramatic affect of the phenomenon, and the brilliance of the stars, and red of the sunset continues the affect.

A figure can be seen in the foreground, standing at the edge of the viewing platform to look at the comet with the range of mountains in the distance, glowing red. The relative scale of man to mountain emphasizes the magnititude of the incident.

Smyth was an astronomer, geodesist, spectroscopist, meteorologist, pyramidologist, photographer, traveller and writer. He realized that cities were not the ideal place for astronomical observations and fought for the settlement of observatories on mountains. In 1856, he organised an expedition to the Canary Islands and also travelled to Russia, France, Madeira, Sicily and Egypt. As one of the great British astronomers, he was 42 years Astronomer Royal for Scotland.
The painting is signed 'C P S' and dated 1843 and is one of a pair with BHC4147.

Object Details

ID: BHC4148
Collection: Fine art
Type: Painting
Display location: Not on display
Creator: Smyth, Charles Piazzi
Date made: 1843
Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Measurements: Frame: 1052 mm x 753 mm x 75 mm;Overall: 13.6 kg;Painting: 907 mm x 610 mm

Your Request

If an item is shown as “offsite”, please allow eight days for your order to be processed. For further information, please contact Archive staff:

Tel: (during Library opening hours)

Click “Continue” below to continue processing your order with the Library team.