Essential Information

Royal Observatory

17 Oct 2014

In anticipation of a new book on Nevil Maskelyne, Amy Miller, Curator of Decorative Arts and Material Culture at Royal Museums Greenwich, tells us about a pair of miniatures of the fifth Astronomer Royal and his wife. Earlier this week, two portraits of Nevil Maskelyne and Sophia Rose Maskelyne went on display for the first time in Ships, Clocks & Stars. Only recently acquired by the Museum, they were painted in 1801 and 1803 respectively by Mary Byrne, with Nevil Maskelyne paying £10 for each, and are still in their original frames and red leather cases (although the leather cases are not on display).

Nevil Maskelyne, by Mary Byrne, 1801 (NMM ZBA5688)


In the first to be painted, Nevil is shown wearing a wig, which was actually slightly passé for 1801. He is also in his Reverend’s robes, indicating that he is a man of learning and status.  The back of the miniature has an inset of blue glass, a popular choice in that period. We know that Nevil’s portrait was done first because Sophia is shown wearing it in the miniature painted two years later.

Sophia Rose Maskelyne, by Mary Byrne, 1803 (NMM ZBA5689)


She appears as a fashionable matron in a red dress, fine dotted muslin fichu and cap, and with a great quantity of pearls used to secure her husband’s miniature to her dress. Her costume clearly follows the fashion plates of the early nineteenth century, particularly the cap with a bow on the back. Similar examples can be seen in the London fashion plates of ‘English Afternoon Dress, 1800’, as can the strings of pearls. When Nevil Maskelyne was appointed Astronomer Royal in 1765, he took up residence at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in the living quarters that were a perquisite of the post, now known as the Flamsteed House apartments. Nearly twenty years later, on 21 August 1784, he married Sophia Pate Rose at St Andrew’s, Holborn. She was twenty years his junior and the illegitimate daughter, and heiress, of John Pate Rose of Cotterstock and Holborn. A year later their daughter and only child, Margaret, was born at the Observatory. In what looks like an intimate gesture, the back of Sophia’s portrait miniature contains locks of her hair entwined with those of her husband.

Back of portrait minature of Sophia Rose Maskelyne (NMM ZBA5689)


This supports the impression of a very affectionate relationship given by Sophia wearing Nevil’s portrait miniature so openly in her own portrait. It is the same impression one gets from Elizabeth Foster, confidante of Georgina, Duchess of Devonshire, who wore a miniature of Georgina around her neck and called it her ‘beloved medallion’: it is prominently displayed in Angelica Kauffman’s portrait of Foster, painted in 1784. By being shown wearing the portrait miniature of Nevil, Sophia Maskelyne is also firmly identifying herself as his wife and potentially underlining the legitimacy of her marriage. Nevil Maskelyne: Astronomer Royal, edited by Rebekah Higgitt, will be published in November 2014. Amy Miller has written one of the chapters in the book.