Essential Information

Royal Observatory

06 Apr 2016

Curator Louise Devoy looks back to Margaret Maskelyne, daughter of the fith Astronomer Royal, who drew watercolours of both the Royal Observatory and the Queen's House

Situated in Greenwich Park, the Queen’s House has always attracted artists to capture its geometrical beauty on paper and canvas. In this blog I’ll focus on one very local artist who saw the park’s changing views every day for the first 25 years of her life: Margaret Maskelyne (1785–1858), the only child of the fifth Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811) and his wife Sophia Rose (1752–1821).

Portrait of Margaret Maskelyne
Margaret Maskelyne during her teenage years Object ID: ZBA5104

Born in the oldest part of the Observatory, Flamsteed House, on 25 June 1785, Margaret was an intelligent girl who received a well-rounded education in both academic and social skills. Like many middle-class young women of her time, Margaret was encouraged to take up sketching, a skill which she appears to have enjoyed and developed throughout her life.

Surrounded by Greenwich Park, the Astronomer Royal’s daughter had plenty of opportunity to practise her landscape sketches. Given her father’s occupation, it’s possible that Margaret used an optical device called a camera obscura to help her achieve these results. Her father Nevil had already installed one in the north-west turret of Flamsteed House in 1778, possibly as an aid to safely observing solar eclipses without looking directly at the Sun. The device consisted of a revolving lens on the roof top which directed light through a lens down onto a table within the darkened space of the upper turret room.


A camera obscura

Offering superb panoramic views of Greenwich and the city of London beyond, the camera obscura was used by visiting artists such as Edward Pugh (c.1761–1813) whose work featured in the travel guidebook ‘Modern London’ in 1805. In the example shown below, we see the Queen’s House during its last few years as the grace-and-favour residence of the Park Ranger before its conversion to the Royal Naval Asylum in 1807. A horse and carriage stands outside the Orangery entrance to the Queen’s House while the background is filled with the forest of ships’ masts in West India Docks.

Flamsteed House Camera Obscura
View of Greenwich Hospital and the West India Docks, drawn from the viewing-table of the camera obscura. Object ID: PAD2204

Just a few years later in 1810 at the age of 25, Margaret began to compose her own sketch of the same scene. The perspective is different to Pugh’s close-up illustration of the Queen’s House but it’s feasible that she may have used the camera obscura to help compose the drawing and complete the details. In her initial sketch she has clearly labelled the Queen’s House as the ‘Asylum’ with one of the domes of Greenwich Hospital shown prominently in the background.

Greenwich from the Royal Observatory
Unfinished prospect of Greenwich looking north east from the Royal Observatory. Object ID: ZBA4671

A year later, Margaret’s second surviving sketch shows the buildings in much greater definition. Two colonnades extend out from the Queen’s House along an east-west axis to connect the building with two new wings, captured in photo-like detail. 

Greenwich from the Royal Observatory by Margaret Maskelyn
Unfinished sketch of Greenwich showing the Royal Naval Hospital, the Queen's House and the new colonnade and buildings of the Royal Naval Asylum (later Royal Hospital School). Object ID: ZBA4673

Unfortunately, the final picture does not seem to have survived but another watercolour from around the same time suggests that perhaps Margaret shifted the focus of her painting away from the Queen’s House and re-centred her painting further east towards the bend in the river towards Blackwall. 

Full watercolour by Margaret Maskelyne of the view from the Observatory
Watercolour painting of the view from the Observatory, Greenwich. Object ID: ZBA5098

Despite the limited collection of surviving paintings, it’s clear to see that Margaret took a keen interest in her surroundings and used her unique childhood home at the Observatory as an opportunity to observe and record the Queen’s House, as viewed down the hill across Greenwich Park. 

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