Visions of the Universe is the summer exhibition here at Royal Museums Greenwich, filling the Special Exhibitions Gallery at the National Maritime Museum with stunning and beautiful images of stars, planets and galaxies. The exhibition tells the story of how telescopes and cameras have revolutionised our view of the Universe and our own place within it. We asked Will Gater, astronomer, author and Features Editor for Sky At Night Magazine, to highlight some of his favourite pictures and to comment on the impact that photography has had on astronomy, from its inception in the 19th Century right down to the sophisticated observatories of the 21st.
How do you think modern day technology has changed astrophotography for both scientists and amateurs?
Astronomy has always been a fast changing subject, taking advantage of new technologies as they’re developed. But what fascinates me is the pace at which amateur astrophotography and the research work done by some professionals is starting to converge. For decades small handfuls of experienced amateurs have been doing things like supernovae and asteroid hunting, with great success. Yet now we’re seeing space agencies actively engaging with amateurs to collect data and run monitoring programs. Modern amateur telescopes and cameras are allowing people to support planetary missions like Cassini, study asteroids (in the case of the OSIRIS-REx mission) as well as do things like meteor detection.
The exhibition features a few images from the NMM collection, can you tell us what you thought of them?
I found the beautiful drawing of a sunspot, made in 1873, by Samuel Pierpoint Langley particular interesting. I wonder what he would think of the superb solar images produced by amateur astronomers nowadays.
How does contemporary astrophotography influence modern day exploration and navigation?
I don’t think we should ever underestimate, or belittle, the tremendous inspirational value of images like those in the exhibition. You only have to see how the latest pictures from Hubble or the Mars rovers are shared on social media to see how much of an effect they have. Space pictures seem to resonate very deeply with people; just think how iconic the ‘Pale Blue Dot’, the ‘Pillars of Creation’ and the ‘Blue Marble’ have become. Even if they just get people asking questions, or trying to find out more about science, these images will, and do, have a significant influence on society. And who knows, maybe they’ll also inspire a future generation of astronauts, scientists and explorers.
Any tips for our visitors who have been inspired by the images in the exhibition?
Well, what I always say is that you don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get into astrophotography. You can take stunning images with just a DSLR camera and a photographic tripod; bright constellations over picturesque landscapes, the aurora, noctilucent clouds, meteors and the Milky Way starfields all make great targets for this sort of setup. Even modern smartphones and compact digital cameras can take great pictures of the Moon and bright planets when pointed through a telescope’s eyepiece. We have an astrophotography tutorial in Sky at Night Magazine every month if you want to take things further.
Finally, what are your favourite images in the exhibition?
The ‘Window on Mars’ panoramas are truly spectacular and give you a real sense of standing on Mars, peering out over the barren landscape. But I’m also a huge fan of the galaxy images in the deep space section. I could stare at them for hours.
One of the objects I have worked on during my time as a HLF ‘Skills for the future’ conservation intern at the National Maritime Museum has been a silk Royal Standard (post 1837). This object had sadly deteriorated to the point where it was difficult to see many of the typical features present in this type of flag. The Royal Standard is flown when and where a monarch is in residence. It has a distinctive layout which has changed over the centuries to include emblems that relate to the formation of the United Kingdom, in this case England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Prior to commencing any work on the object, I carried out a full assessment of its condition. This identified two major concerns regarding the long-term preservation of the flag. Most prominently that the warp threads had disintegrated, and left large sections where weft threads were ‘floating’, or only partially still in a woven structure. This gave the flag a straggly appearance with bundles of fibres twisted and knotted together. The flag is also significantly faded. This is particularly evident in areas which have more saturated colour, such as in the folds of the hems, which can sometimes show the original colour scheme of textiles. The main cause of this type of damage is exposure to light.
The Royal Standard flag (AAA2020) before conservation treatment
The flag had been printed or resist dyed to give it red, blue and gold colouring. The red has faded completely, and the yellow has discoloured giving the flag a uniformly brown colour. The printed areas appear to have deteriorated much more than the unprinted areas. Some historic dyes and pigments contain compounds such as Iron Oxide, that are known to deteriorate over time and damage the materials to which they were applied, and this may be why the printed areas are far more damaged than the unprinted areas.
Royal Standard flag (AAA0809) from the National Maritime Museum collection, showing the intended colour scheme.
The royal lions prior to treatment
The flag was very crumpled and my first priority was to ease out the creases before any stitching could take place to secure it down to a lining fabric. To achieve this without using excessive heat, pressure or water, the best available option available to me was the use of cool moisture through a humidifier, and letting the flag rest under light, flat glass weights until the creases were slowly eased out. Once in this condition, I could place the flag onto a support fabric that I had coloured to match using stable, lightfast dyes. The flag was then secured to the support fabric with rows of couching stitches, and placed onto a padded board. The board provides a rigid but soft support that is suitable for long term storage. A layer of dyed net was used to overlay the surface of the flag, creating a ‘sandwich’ that will keep the fragile fibres aligned and secure for the future.
The flag has been a great project with plenty of challenges. It has enabled me to work through a range of different techniques, that will benefit me greatly in future textile conservation projects.
The Royal Standard (AAA2020) after conservation treatment
We’re very excited to announce that to coincide with the opening of Visions of the Universe – the upcoming exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Pandemonium Press are publishing The Lowest Heaven, a new anthology of contemporary science fiction.
Each story in The Lowest Heaven is themed around a body in the Solar System, from the Sun to Halley’s Comet. Contributors include Alastair Reynolds, Kaaron Warren, S.L. Grey, Lavie Tidhar, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Sophia McDougall, Maria Dahvana Headley, Adam Roberts, E.J. Swift, Kameron Hurley and Doctor Who’s Matt Jones.
The stories are illustrated with photographs and artwork selected from our world-class collection, while the book’s cover and overall design are the work of award-winning South African illustrator Joey Hi-Fi. Joey has provided us with an exclusive Q&A about how he created the design for the cover artwork.
A limited edition hardcover is available for purchase exclusively through the Royal Museums Greenwich shop at http://bit.ly/17LpKDe.
Find out more about Visions of the Universe and book tickets online at rmg.co.uk/visions
Cover artwork for The Lowest Heaven. Copyright Joey Hi-Fi
The design you created for The Lowest Heaven centres around a map – where does this idea come from?
With The Lowest Heaven being an anthology, the brief was to create a piece of artwork that would tie all the stories together. Since the book features stories based on various celestial bodies in our Solar System – creating a bespoke solar system map seemed like an interesting way to do that.
Plus, having a fascination with all things cosmic (bordering on Kosmikophilia), I couldn’t resist. I used to draw maps of alien solar systems as a kid – peppered with space battles of course. So this is a childhood dream come true.
I was inspired by the wall hangings in the National Maritime Museum collection. These were produced by the Working Men’s Educational Union in the 1850s and based on astronomical themes. The hangings were printed lithographically on cotton, which gives them an interesting appearance. I liked their simple, yet striking design. One in particular (see jpeg) formed the basis of my design.
I just took a more modern approach – if you can call it that. My map has more of a 1950s aesthetic as opposed to one reminiscent of the 1850s.
"Solar System", 1850-1860 Artist: Unknown, Working Men's Educational Union. Object ID: ZBA4550. Copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
The map also has hints or elements from the stories themselves. Can you talk us through these, and how you settled on which ones to include?
I wanted the solar system map to be unique to The Lowest Heaven. So I thought it should not only include the celestial bodies – but elements from the stories themselves.
What would make a map of the solar system even more awesome? Why, Spaceships of course! I decided to include some simple illustrations of the space-faring vessels (as well as an asteroid and a comet) that were mentioned in the various stories.
I had read the entire book already, so I went back through my notes and picked the objects I wanted to include – in the end, I settled on four. I’ll leave the reader to discover which stories they fit. To match the retro feel of the map, all the spaceships (bar Voyager) have a 1950s retro feel to them.
There are two editions of The Lowest Heaven, but this map is the central design for both of them.
For this project I decided to illustrate and design the fold-out solar system map (to be included in the hardcover) first. I felt it would be simpler to work from a full solar system map and then decide how to adapt that artwork to work on the two book covers.
What would work on the fold-out map wouldn’t necessarily work on the book covers, given the change of size and so on.
I wanted the covers to have the same character as the map – but I didn’t want the cover artwork to be exactly the same as the full fold-out. For both creative and practical reasons.
Since a simple crop of a section of the full solar system map wouldn’t work as a cover, it required reworking the typography, changing the design & removing small details while adding others.
Is designing for an anthology different from illustrating a novel or a single story?
It is. This is my first cover for an anthology featuring different authors. I had to approach it in a different way conceptually. Whereas a novel may have one central protagonist, voice, style or tone – an anthology obviously has many. Finding that common thread can be a challenge.
Many of the anthology covers I see tend to be quite generic in terms of concept. Science fiction will have a space ship on the cover, horror a ghoul of some kind, etc. For The Lowest Heaven, having each story based on a celestial body made for a strong central concept, one that was unique enough to steer clear of cover clichés.
I also felt that I didn’t want to focus on one story over another. I wanted to have the various writers all equally represented on the cover.
For more artistically readers: how did you go about making this? There’s so much detail!
I do the basic layout. Then, at night, extra-dimensional space elves materialize and complete it.
Jokes aside – having never designed a solar system map before – It started with much research.
I had to brush up on the orbit of the planets, their approximate sizes in relation to each other and so on. I wanted the map to have some semblance of scientific accuracy. The gaps in my knowledge of our solar system made me realize I should have payed more attention in science class at school – instead of filling my textbooks with super-hero themed doodles.
I then moved onto some rough sketches of the solar system map design (incorporating typography and other additional elements). Once I’d decided on a rough layout/design that I thought would work – I then started on the finished illustration.
Parts of the illustration were done in Illustrator or Photoshop, others by hand (ink on paper). I also scanned in various old paper textures to help give the solar system map that slightly aged / retro feel. I enjoy using a combination of various techniques in the illustration process. It allows me to experiment a bit.
"A Representation of the Meteor Seen at Paddington about 12 Minutes before 11 o'clock, on the Evening of the 11th of Feb. 1850", 1850 Artist: Leggatt, Hayward & Leggatt, Lloyd Brothers & Co, Wyatt, Matthew Cotes. Object ID: ZBA4550. Copyright: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Which was your favourite story?
By Grabthar’s hammer! My illustrator sense foresaw that question coming. Do you want all of the contributors to The Lowest Heaven to hate me – bar one?
Tough question. It’s so hard to choose. All the stories we amazing in some way. But if you insist on putting a phaser to my temple – I particularly enjoyed the tale for Jupiter by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
Did you want to be an astronaut when you grew up?
Oddly no. I wanted to be a ‘Diver Uncle’. Which was my four year old self’s term for a deep sea explorer. At a young age I was watching Star Trek (plus other 80s Sci-Fi classics) and dreaming of space exploration – but I was equally fascinated by deep sea exploration. And I still am – who doesn’t find giant squid fascinating?
Find out more about The Lowest Heaven and Pandemonium Fiction at http://www.pandemonium-fiction.com/lowest-heaven.html
Between 11 and 13 March, the exhibition Alice Kettle: The Garden of England is being set up in the Queen’s House. In this post, Alice Kettle shares her experience of the third and last day of installation on 13 March.
“Everything is done and I am home. I have had a bath and, whilst feeling completely exhausted, my head is still filled with the happenings of today.
Today we raised the Flower Helix into place in the Tulip Stairs. This extraordinary spiral staircase leads your eye towards a circular skylight. The spiral apparently gets smaller as it twists upwards, with its metal bannister of fleur-de-lys motif and waved lines of metalwork. As with the Great Hall, the impression is of pure form and clear geometry. I did not want to interrupt this view, simply to animate the scale of the vertical and spiralled shape.
From top to bottom the height measures approximately 12 metres, and makes you slightly giddy as you look down.
I have unified the component parts, the small flower heads which have been made for me. They are all needle lace or crochet, some delicate and complex, others expressive and bold. Each one is different and put together they form a mass of flowers reminiscent of the ‘Queen Anne’s lace’ or cow parsley.
It has taken me the last three weeks to collect these beautiful contributions together, to attach them to wire and make them into a composite form, which could then be connected on site. I was amazed by the overwhelming response to my call out, having to constantly buy more materials and send off more parcels to the many people who offered to make these little circular motifs. The success of the piece rests on the abundance and the mix of these forms. You cannot help but stop and look at each one.
The Manchester School of Art girls worked out a system of connecting all parts and last night we laid out the various ‘circles’, each of which had four wire flower heads with approximately 20 to 30 flowers on each.
We had a total of around 24 circles, some with my little red or blue on white flowers. We also attached lines of linen thread which could hang vertically from each circle. Richard had made a cross bar to sit at the top bannister. We attached a pulley and started to gently lift the whole structure with a cord. This took all morning, since at each stage we needed to untangle the threads and wire stalks whilst also attaching new ones. There were 6 of us working on this from the floor, with Richard and Lisa on the stairs and Melanie coordinating and supervising. The whole piece needed adjusting and securing constantly.
But the finished work looks spectacular and is made even more so through these multiple contributions, a true collaborative work of participation and public engagement.
It is completely inspiring in terms of the generosity others have contributed to the project. I hope that I have been sensitive to this extraordinary place. I have met many of the Queen’s House volunteers, including Maurice, who have committed their time and knowledge to the House.
So all the girls went home to Manchester, Amy and Melanie and I scattered the flowers around the flower bed, and now I am home. Thank you everyone, thank you all at the National Maritime Museum, especially the staff and the volunteers. Thank you for having me for the last few days and looking after me with such care and interest.”
- Alice Kettle
The Garden of England is now open until 18 August, in the Tulip Stairs and North-West Parlour in the Queen’s House
Between 11 and 13 March, the exhibition Alice Kettle: The Garden of England is being set up in the Queen’s House. In this post, Alice Kettle shares her experience of the second day of installation.
“Last night I was overwhelmed by the enormity of this project and the company of Queens and courtiers. Today I am reassured by the kindliness of all the amazing staff at NMM. Lisa Evans met us in the morning and took us into the Queen’s House. She has taken care of all the procedural aspects, coordinating the various people and teams.
The Flower Bed is in place. Graham put together the plinth made by Richard. It sits on the floor beneath my portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria. Richard had to make it bigger for me as I changed my mind. On top of it sits the embroidered cloth I have made, which picks up the patterns of clothing in the portraits. There are embellished rosettes, floral twigs, fringes and braids which are represented in stitch onto cloth.
On top are scattered flowers and strange twists of rope made into flowers. Emma Blackburn has made other intricately stitched pieces, one is Nelson’s badge.
The Manchester School of Art girls have each made a flower too.
My colleague Dr Nigel Hurlstone, Senior Lecturer in Embroidery at Manchester, arrived unexpectedly. He was on his way to Paris to a textile fair but his Eurostar was cancelled because of the snow.
I have made a frill of lace as a frame around the edge. It is reminiscent of the collars in the portraits, though laser cut and painted gold. The work has become a strange ornamental flowerbed of curious forms and medallions. I have never made a work so decorative or floral.
The little flowers scattered on the floor link with those in the portrait, the wind has apparently blown them to the ground.
Amy Miller has helped to attach the flowers to the piece and Melanie has cut more flowers. Christine, Head of the Arts at the Museum, has come and encouraged. Everyone has helped.
I looked at the Flower Bed and it seemed curious and glowing, different and yet of course as I had imagined in my mind. I wanted to make a work that is magical but intriguing, familiar and unexpected. I hope I have.
Nicola Yates the textile conservator came with her assistant and placed a protective sheet at the base of the Flower Bed to protect it from the floor. Last week we visited her in the textile studio where she is restoring a painted banner of Nelson. Incredible painstaking work.
In the fireplace we have placed flowers made by Victoria Brown and her students from University of Chichester. Later urns will be placed amongst them for flowers made through public engagement projects.
Louise Simkiss and Amy Miller have chosen other works of mine to go to the Knitting and Stitching show at Olympia which opens on Thursday.
Meanwhile the Manchester girls have spent all day measuring and cutting thread to make the huge flower installation for the Tulip Stairs. This has been an incredible piece to make. It has formed itself and evolved through the contributions from others. Originally I asked the lace experts Gail Baxter and Carol Quarini for help. They gave up four days to come and advise and help me. They suggested I ask on Facebook for working contributions, so I did thinking maybe four or five people might answer. Instead I have had around 80. I have sent each a package to make small white flower heads based on ‘Queen Anne’s lace’. I have had hundreds of flowers returned which have been put together over the last few weeks. The girls and the wonderful Emma have worked out a system for hanging. Tomorrow [Wednesday 13 March] we shall raise this work up to its full height of 12 metres from the ground.”
- Alice Kettle