In 2009 the Museum celebrates the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), which commemorates the first use of an astronomical telescope by Galileo in 1609 as well as, amongst other things, the first moon landing (1969). It is hoped that the IYA will increase our awareness of the impact that astronomy has on our every day lives and our understanding of how scientific knowledge can contribute to our daily existence.
During my travels around the Museum I noticed this fascinating reproduction of a 17th century print, which is currently on display in the stairwell adjoining the Octagon Room, at the Royal Observatory (ROG). It shows three figures using astronomical equipment in the Great Star Room or the Octagon Room, as it is known today, at the ROG. To the left an observer is using a quadrant to carry out astronomical observations. While a seated figure, on the right, studies the sky through a telescope. Portraits of Charles II, whose support Sir Jonas Moore had crucially secured for the founding of an observatory at Greenwich, and James, Duke of York (later James II), can be seen in the background.
This is a reproduction of one of twelve plates showing the Royal Observatory and its equipment that were produced by Francis Place, c. 1676, after drawings by Robert Thacker. The print series was commissioned by Sir Jonas Moore, a mathematician and one of the founders of the Royal Observatory, to commemorate the opening of the Observatory which was established to solve the problem of longitude in navigation. It was hoped that by charting the position of the stars relative to the position of the moon, astronomers would be able to solve the more earthly concern of navigation at sea and, consequently, reduce the risk of shipwrecks that inevitably resulted in loss of life and livelihoods.
The original print was probably made to illustrate the newly established Royal Observatory as well as the research it was undertaking into the compelling and earthly problem of navigation at sea. Like the IYA, which aims to raise awareness of the effect that astronomy has on our lives, the Royal Observatory was founded and equipped in recognition of the fact that an understanding of space and an ability to apply this knowledge can solve some of our more earthly and daily concerns.
At the National Maritime Museum we continue to catalogue and digitise our collections and we regularly review our online collections to keep them up-to-date with our progress. The most recent additions to our Collections Online are drawings, prints and watercolours by the artist Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821).
Nicholas Pocock, A third-rate, a frigate, a fishing lugger and other craft off shore in a calm, 1794 (PAH8403)
Nicholas Pocock was a leading British painter of naval and marine subjects. Here, at the NMM, we have an extensive collection of his works and the largest collection of his paintings in Britain. His fascinating sketches, watercolours and paintings show important events including: the Seven Years War (1756-63); the American War of Independence (1775-82) and the French wars. His works, in our collection, range from rough sketches through to oil paintings, which give us an excellent insight into historical events and his artistic practice, so it is important to us that they are available to our online visitors.
Nicholas Pocock, The Battle of the Glorious First of June, 1794; plan of the action (PAD8870)
In 1778, following a career at sea, Pocock set up on his own as an artist and began exhibiting works at the Royal Academy from 1782. He was present at the Battle of the Glorious First of June 1794, on board the frigate Pegasus, and he sketched the action as it unfolded. This is the first instance that we know of a professional artist accompanying a fleet with the intention of documenting a battle since Willem van de Velde the Elder (1611-1693). Pocock’s sketches of the battle are, as a result, records of the event by an eyewitness. Subsequently Pocock made paintings of the battle, based on the sketches that he took on the spot, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1796 and 1797. An example of which, The ‘Brunswick’ and the ‘Vengeur du Peuple’ at the Battle of the First of June, 1794 (BHC0471), is in our collection.
Nicholas Pocock, The ‘Brunswick’ and the ‘Vengeur du Peuple’ at the Battle of the First of June, 1794, 1795 (BHC0471)
Many of Pocock’s works were engraved for publication and, following the death of Dominic Serres in 1793, Pocock became the leading naval painter of his age. You can browse or search our online catalogue of prints, drawings and watercolours by Nicholas Pocock on Collections Online. Alternatively, take a closer look at some of the objects that have featured in our exhibitions or peruse other online topics including Franklin relics and Maritime Art Greenwich.
George Oates, the former programme manager for the Flickr Commons, came to visit us at the National Maritime Museum in November 2008.
She spent some time working with our historic photographs when she was here, and has chosen some items from the collection for the NMM’s Flickr Commons account. We’re launching the first set today.
George’s view of the coalface
The photographs come from the Museum’s Villiers collection of about 20,000 negatives, which portrays a wide variety of maritime themes, reflecting Alan Villiers’ seafaring endeavours.
A sailor and his accordion onboard the Parma (N61653)
George’s selection of photographs includes images from Villiers’ voyages on the Herzogin Cecilie, the Grace Harwar, the Parma and on Arab dhows. You can find out more about Alan Villiers and his photography and about the Museum’s historic photographs collection on the elsewhere NMM site.
Rounding Cape Horn on the Parma (N61569)
We loved having George with us in London, and the entries she ‘curated’ for our Commons presence provided a fresh insight into our photographs. We hope it also provides a new outside-in perspective on Museum content on Flickr.
Retiring from my travels as Caird North American Fellow I feel I must report that an anonymous boy has been scribbling over library books in the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island. I am enormously grateful to him. Writing in the 1860s, he confided his doubts and his determination to go to sea to the margins of his copy of Richard Henry Dana Jr.’s seminal 1841 guide for sailors, The Seaman’s Friend. His marginalia reveals both his youth and inexperience, as he has especially marked up the pages pertaining to ‘boys’ and ‘ordinary seamen’ and noted the wages for a green hand. He had literary interests too, pasting in lines from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure about doubt: ‘Our doubts are traitors, / And make us lose the good we oft might win, / By fearing to attempt.’ Under this he included, from the Boston Evening Transcript, an antidote to those doubts: ‘A man who has a fixed purpose to which he devotes his powers is invulnerable. Like the rock in the sea, it splits the troubles of life, and they eddy round him in idle foam.’ Inside the book’s covers he noted the latitude and longitude of Boston, of San Francisco, and information about Cape Horn, the three prime locations in which this boy was imaginatively invested. As in Dana’s Two Year’s Before the Mast, the voyage around Cape Horn often was seen as a rite of passage and especially for a young man. This boy’s marginalia expresses his sense that he is on the verge of his own rite of passage, redolent as its language is with doubt, determination, real and imagined location, and a literal and figurative positioning of himself.
Coloured lithograph of A Squall off Cape Horn (PAD6433)
I found this book in the wonderful collections of the John Carter Brown Library. The boy’s jottings have helped me to consider a crucial question which hangs over the book that I am working on: what did the study of celestial navigation mean for women who went to sea in the nineteenth century? This is because at the centre of my book are two young captains’ wives who, in one of the stormiest, most ferocious southern winters of the 19th century, had to navigate their husbands’ clipper ships westward around Cape Horn. They had to do so because their husbands were incapacitated by serious illness. These American women, aged nineteen and twenty-two, were then the only ones on board capable of navigating. As teenagers they had lived in adjoining streets in Boston’s North End, but although they must have passed each other in the crowded alleys many times, we have no evidence that they ever met. In the winter of 1856 their proximity was of a different and more deadly order as they battled with the seas around the Horn, fighting for their husbands’ and the ships’ survival. My book will tell of their lives within the context of the merchant marine and of navigational study by women and men at this time.
I have been reading David Rooney’s fascinating book about Ruth Belville, a woman very much in control of the time. The author’s profile claims that he is equally in control and ‘has never been late for work’. On my US travels I wished I had that same symbiotic relationship with my subject. Instead, navigation failed me, and I was too often utterly lost. North America saw me driving an hour north on Maine’s Route One, meaning to go south, and astray on the twisting overpasses outside Boston, in the dark, in a storm (don’t talk to me of the dangers of Cape Horn). However, I did find my way eventually, and this wonderful fellowship gave me the flexibility to explore the great centres for maritime history as well as the little local historical societies which can yield research prizes and surprises. I am enormously grateful to the National Maritime Museum for the opportunity to investigate these archives and the riches that I found there, and finally to let me come home to the NMM and the prime meridian, where I will at least know where I am.
A pair of painted pearl oyster shells (ZBA4546 and ZBA4547)
Many craftwork items involve an appropriate combination of sailors with seashells. The nautilus shells engraved by C.H. Wood turn up quite frequently in the salerooms. Boxed shell valentines made in Jamaica are also well known to collectors. However, when the family of Able Seamen Wright offered us a pair of painted pearl oyster shells, we realised that they were something new to our collections. The shells are quite big and are likely to belong to the largest type of pearl oyster (Pinctada Maxima). These are found in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific and historically were harvested not only as a source of pearls but as the basis of a shell button industry.
The shells commemorate a cruise by HMS Juno in the Indian Ocean during World War I and fit in with the NMM’s current research interests in this part of the world. Although his family believe that Henry Wright painted the shells himself, it is possible that he may have bought them in Sri Lanka as a souvenir of his visit. Displays of national flags featured on many items of popular decorative art at this time, notably on the silk embroideries produced in the Far East for sale to western seamen.
A bonus of these attractive items is that we know a good deal about their owner. Able Seaman Henry Wright was born in Plymouth in 1876 and joined the Navy as a boy 2nd class at the age of twelve. He served on the China Station in HMS Victorious during 1897-1900 and in Amphitrite 1902-1905. His service record describes him as a short, dark man with ‘HW’ within a heart transfixed by an arrow, tattooed on his right forearm and an anchor tattooed on his left forearm. He was serving on armoured cruiser HMS Aboukir when she was sunk by U-9 in the North Sea on 22 September 1914. During 1917, he joined Juno and remained in her until the end of the war in 1919. He married Mabel Ada Toms and they had 10 children.