Curator of Art, Katy Barrett, looks at our recent contemporary art exhibition
I’ve taken myself and longitude into new waters recently as I’ve been curating the fourth contemporary art show in the Queen’s House, Unseen: The Lives of Looking by Dryden Goodwin.
For the exhibition, Goodwin has created his first feature-length film, which considers looking in the modern day through the lives of three very different individuals. An eye surgeon from Moorfields Eye Hospital performs minute surgery to help glaucoma patients, a planetary explorer from UCL works with the Mars Curiosity Rover across vast distances to look at rock formations, and a human rights lawyer from Leigh Day defends individuals against governments and large organisations over questions of surveillance.
All require different ways, reasons and scales of looking, but show a kinship of observation and recording that is tied together by Goodwin’s own implicit presence in the film. Alongside live-action footage, you see his intense portrait drawing of the participants, and his own observations of London, of passing strangers, and of his father and son. It is an immersive and mesmerising experience.
But what’s all this got to do with longitude? Goodwin’s work has allowed us to think about how looking, observing and recording have always been central to the history of Greenwich. Alongside his triptych of modern lookers we’ve highlighted a parallel historic trio who worked in our sites.
The Queen’s House provided a studio space for Willem van de Velde the Elder in the 1670s-90s, from which he went to observe naval battles on the spot, and turn multiple pencil studies into detailed ‘pen paintings’. The National Maritime Museum buildings were once the Royal Hospital School, were astronomy assistant Edward Walter Maunder worked with the headmaster to make vision experiments with the boys. Together they established that canals seen on Mars were a visual artefact.
And the Royal Observatory was, of course, built to find a means of measuring longitude at sea, and John Flamsteed was given the job as first Astronomer Royal, of carrying out observations for that purpose. He’s our third historic looker, and nicely shows how painstaking, monotonous observations were crucial to creating the accurate star charts needed for navigation. We briefly touch on his arguments with Newton and Halley over publishing his data, and on his misidentification of Uranus as a star in the constellation of Taurus, nearly a century before Herschel ‘discovered’ it.
So, Flamsteed’s arrival in the Observatory in the 1670s is at the start of the long story of looking at Greenwich which ends, for now, with Dryden Goodwin.