Tonight marks the Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest night (and shortest day!) of the year.
This means more time for stargazing (clouds permitting), and as such it seems as good an excuse as any to look at one of our recently acquired artworks, which shows the heavens in an equally beautiful and festive manner. Our Curator of Art, Melanie Vandenbrouck, tells more.
“Drawing on Space” forms part of a recent body of work, in which she arranges photographs in a grid configuration that gives a narrative resonance to her poetic exploration of the world around, or above, us.
“Drawing on Space” combines sights of star clusters, galaxies and nebulae with fireworks, on which Stuart has placed images of telescopic or photographic antique lenses. In doing so, she questions why we look to the sky: “Do we put a lens on space because we feel alone? Or is it curiosity about the incomprehensible vastness of the universe? Does that cosmic energy, in fact, make us feel, not alone, but in some way complete?’
On a more literal level, this juxtaposition also invites us to consider the importance of both the telescope and the camera in the advancement of astronomical knowledge. Astronomy and photography are intimately connected, as a science and a technology that have the same end, of capturing light. So in the 19th century, the two disciplines evolved hand-in-hand - photography heralded a new dawn for astronomy, while astronomy propelled photography to further heights.
Many early photographic pioneers were also astronomers. Among them, particularly influential was John Herschel. A friend and scientific advisor to William Fox Talbot on his photographic experiments, Herschel coined the terms: photography, positive and negative, snapshot. He was also close to the celebrated Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, who took this famous portrait of him in old age.
And indeed, telescopes and cameras lived side-by-side at Greenwich from the early days of photography. The Royal Observatory’s solar department was set up in 1873 to photograph the Sun, and one of its first missions was to record the movements of the delicate silhouette of the planet Venus during its transit in 1874.
One photographic pioneer was Annie Maunder, who joined the Royal Observatory in 1891, as one of the “lady computers” assigned to the solar department. There, she also found love: she married the astronomer Walter Maunder, with whom she went on solar eclipse expeditions armed with a short-focus camera.
If their endless observation of the night sky is scientifically-driven, astronomers often have a poetic gaze. With its combination of celestial and man-made lightshows, I love how Stuart’s Drawing on Space reconciles forensic scrutiny with the wonders of space, suggesting at once the contemplative and euphoric nature of stargazing. And on this note, please allow me to wish you a lovely festive week, and all the best for 2016.
Drawing on Space will form part of the redisplay of the Queen’s House for its 400th anniversary in 2016