Astro Art: Aurorae

Melanie Vandenbrouck is Curator of Art for Royal Museums Greenwich and one of the judges for our Astronomy Photographer of the Year Competition. Looking ahead to the 2015 competition she draws inspiration from our art collection. 

Being on the judging panel of the Insight Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition is making me look afresh at Royal Museums Greenwich’s collection, where art sometimes meets science, often with spectacular results. Using the competition’s categories as a way into the collection, in this and future blog posts, I look at some of how artists have looked at the cosmos.

Last year was the first time, since the beginning of Astronomy Photographer of the Year, that a picture of an aurora won the competition’s overall prize.

James Woodend, Aurora over a Glacier Lagoon James Woodend, Aurora over a Glacier Lagoon


James Woodend’s breathtaking Aurora over a Glacier Lagoon seduced the judges with its serenity and majestic feel. Like the landscape of an icy fairy tale, its surreal colours, exquisite symmetry and dreamlike atmosphere are mesmerising.

It is no wonder that aurorae’s transient, out-of-this-world aesthetics capture our imagination. Year on year, we receive many entries featuring the Northern Lights, which, until now, fell into the ‘Earth and Space’ category. In recognition of their popularity among astrophotographers and our visitors alike, ‘Aurorae’ is one of the new categories introduced for the 2015 competition.

Aurorae are however relatively rare in the Museum’s historical collection. This is perhaps unsurprising, as catching these spectacular light shows may require travelling to remote parts of the globe where the weather conditions can be extreme. Until the relatively recent advent of polar tourism, seeing Northern or Southern Lights was mostly the realm of adventurers, scientists and explorers, such as Ernest Shackleton. In fact, Shackleton published the first book produced in the Antarctic, using an aurora for its cover illustration.

Title page of Aurora Australis, 1908-1909 depicting an Aurora (Polar Lights). F6184   Title page of Aurora Australis, 1908-1909 depicting an Aurora (Polar Lights). F6184

Two of the rare depictions of auroral activity in the museum’s art collection came from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which was established during the Second World War to collect artistic records of the conflict in all its aspects.

In his depiction of a merchant navy convoy bound for Russia, Charles Pears represented the interaction of the solar wind’s charged particles with the Earth’s atmosphere as radiating, oblique streams of light.

Charles Pears, Convoy to Russia, 1942, BHC1576 Charles Pears, Convoy to Russia, 1942, BHC1576

By using the rhythmic pattern of the aurora as the dramatic backdrop for his painting, Pears lends great gravitas to the powerful advance of the convoy.  Arctic convoys brought vital supplies to northern Russia, but thousands of Allied seamen lost their lives, the merchant ships being the prey of enemy submarines and aircraft.

Pears depicted wartime sea actions from photographs and eyewitness accounts, so he would not have seen this phenomenon first-hand. The official war artist, Stephen Bone, on the other hand, spent time on board a variety of naval vessels, recording life above and below deck as well as the sights through which he sailed. In this night scene, the ghostly silhouette of the aircraft carrier HMS Pursuer detaches itself against the chilly glow of the aurora borealis.

 view of an island against the Aurora Borealis, circa 1943-5, BHC1542 Stephen Bone, HMS Pursuer: view of an island against the Aurora Borealis, circa 1943-5, BHC1542

The ominous feel of the picture, emphasized by the rough handling of the paint, seems particularly suited to a wartime subject.

While these paintings express the shimmering light displays evocatively, photography is the privileged medium to capture the fleeting shapes of this natural phenomenon. In 2006, the National Maritime Museum invited fine art photographer Dan Holdsworth to show his ‘Hyperborea’ series of photographs specially commissioned as part of the contemporary arts programme New Visions.

Installation shot of the exhibition At the Edge of Space, showing Dan Holdsworth's Hyperborea series, 2006 Installation shot of the exhibition At the Edge of Space, showing Dan Holdsworth’s Hyperborea series, 2006. F5665-029

Speaking of this series, Dan Holdsworth described how:

‘the experience of photographing the Northern Lights felt like I was entering a different time space. Whilst being alone in the arctic wilderness, I became aware of the cycle of the Earth. The lights are a visual representation of everything that we cannot see but which goes on around us all the time. It’s like being given a glimpse of the rhythm of the universe.’

Dan Holdsworth, Hyperborea 09, 2006. Dan Holdsworth, Hyperborea 09, 2006. Image courtesy of the artist.

And if you are likewise inspired by the greatest light shows on Earth, here’s some practical advice as to how best capture an aurora on your camera.