I’m always happy to highlight the work of colleagues and have recently enjoyed an exhibition that opened at the National Maritime Museum a couple of months ago. Called Broadsides: Caricature and the Navy 1775-1815, it explores the history of the Royal Navy with images from the Museum’s collection of caricatures.
Ever on the lookout for navigational imagery, I was particularly impressed by a 1785 print, ‘Sea Amusement. Or Commanders in Chief of Cup and Ball on a Cruise’ by Thomas Rowlandson.
Produced shortly after Britain’s defeat in the War of American Independence, it shows George III’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland (left), who rose to vice admiral despite lacking naval experience, and Sir Edmund Affleck, a veteran of the Battle of the Saintes who had been made vice admiral in 1784. Rowlandson has the two of them at play with a child’s toy while a navigational chart and plans for a coastal fortification lie neglected, trodden underfoot. The navy has become decadent, he tells us, no longer fit for service because of the neglect of those in its upper ranks. Nothing subtle there, I’m glad to see, and it’s good to see charts getting a nice role in the message.
There’s plenty else to see in the show, which runs until 3 February 2013 (and is free), so try to get along. Alternatively, buy the rather nice book – a perfect stocking-filler for those with the right breeches.
Our friends from Leeds Museums & Galleries have been in touch again recently. Apparently the clock made in 1727 by John Harrison that is now in their collections will be on display in a new exhibition at Fairfax House in York from 5 October.
Find out more on their Secret Lives of Objects blog – or just go to York, I guess.
And as luck would have it, Rory McEvoy will be speaking at Fairfax House on 18 October on ‘Two Yorkshiremen and a Cumbrian’.
One of the most exciting finds of my PhD so far has been a broadside map that I found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, after spotting it in the list of publications at the back of a contemporary pamphlet, and tracking it through various search engines. Arriving at the Duke Humfreys Library and being handed a hefty tome of broadsides, I was hopeful but unsure of what A New and Exact Map of Toryland, published in 1729, would turn out to be.
I wasn’t disappointed, it is a marvel of satirical mapping. At the centre lies ‘Toryland’ featuring counties named ‘Absolution,’ ‘Arbitrary Government,’ and ‘Superstition.’ The ships which sail around its coast might easily be wrecked on the ‘Passive Obedience Rocks’ or the ‘Coast of Lost Liberty.’ Surrounding ‘Toryland’ to the West and South are the ‘Pretender’s Channel’ and the ‘Pretender’s Islands’ which include ‘No Tolleration’ and ‘Loss of Public Credit.’ To the East of ‘Toryland’ is ‘Part of Whig Land’ set up as its obvious opposite, where counties include ‘Toleration’ and ‘Parliamentary Right’ and the coastline features ‘Protestant Point’ and ‘Hannover Succession Rock.’ The map is edged with unmarked longitude and latitude scales and the title describes it as showing a location ‘whose Latitude is 1688, and Longitude 1714.’ Thus, latitude and longitude are used as markers of contemporary social and political boundaries; the map is contained by a grid created by the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian Succession. 1714 is, of course, also the date of the longitude Act itself.
I was made to think more about this map last week when I visited a small but beautifully executed exhibition at Waddesdon Manor, a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire. Playing, Learning, Flirting: Printed Board Games from 18th Century France showcases some of the extraordinary games collected by Ferdinand de Rothschild, the manor’s creator. Most are based around the French ‘game of the goose’ which worked in a similar vein to our modern ‘Snakes and Ladders’, with different squares offering obstacles or aids to the player’s journey. Some of these seem delightfully modern, like the Game of the College of Litigants (L’Ecole des Plaideurs), printed around 1685, in which there are no squares allowing the player to jump forward, and the game ends only in the workhouse. This relates nicely to playing cards produced around 1720 at which I have looked. These satirised the ‘South Sea Bubble‘ financial crash, and related natural philosophical projects and bubbles to financial ruin. Longitude was one such proposal.
Many of the board games include mapping or navigation in one form or another. There is the Game of a Voyage Around the World, Via the Principal Towns (Voiage du Monde par les Villes les plus Considerables de la Terre ou par un jeu) (1718), in which players learn geographical information while negotiating a world map, complete with latitude and longitude lines, and the New Game of the Navy (Le Nouveau Jeu de la Marine) (1768), which teaches players about types of vessel, offices and flags, and also features various navigational instruments. This again links to contemporary playing cards that featured suites of instruments for natural philosophers and mathematicians.
Photo: Mike Fear (c) Waddesdon, The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust)
But, my eye was most drawn to two maps, displayed with the Game of a Voyage Around the World. These were the wonderful Fantastical Map of the Empire of the Heart (L’Empire du Coeur) from c.1750 and Map of the Island of Marriage (Carte de L’isle du Marriage) from 1732. The former shows two paths from immaculate formal gardens at the centre, where men and women walk together, to the opposing temples of true and false love. Beyond are the dangerous sea and unknown lands. The latter resembles my Map of Toryland even more with the ‘Island of Marriage’ at the centre surrounded by contrasting lands of ‘Conjugal Love’ and ‘Suspicion’, ‘Boredom’ and ‘Dependence.’ The journey thither starts in the ‘Virgin Lands’ and can end at the ‘Island of Madness’, ‘Divorce’ and ‘Old Age.’ Sadly neither of these maps uses latitude or longitude lines as part of their allegory, but they play nicely into my thoughts about the idea of longitude being used as a trope to map contemporary social norms, and keep them firmly within bounds.
One of the sideline interests of my PhD is ways in which Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress has been picked up by contemporary artists. I blogged last year about a production of Stravinsky’s opera of the same name which Alexi, Sophie and I saw in Cambridge. A staging of that opera at Glyndebourne in 1975 featured stage sets by the modern artist David Hockney, which drew directly on Hogarth’s engraved images. I am presenting a paper on these at a conference in October and hope to incorporate them in my thesis conclusions.
My eye was recently caught, therefore, by the news that the controversial contemporary artist Grayson Perry has also been paying homage to A Rake’s Progress in a bold new attempt to discover the ‘taste tribes’ of Britain. In a series of three programmes for Channel 4 titled In the best possible taste, he has investigated the taste choices of the British working, middle and upper classes. Each programme has then led to the creation of two tapestries in a series of six, which narrate the life of Tim Rakewell, as opposed to Hogarth’s Tom Rakewell, as he passes from a working class birth to an upper class death in The Vanity of Small Differences. I have considered broader questions raised by these works and the programmes over on my own blog Spoons on Trays. You can read the post here.
What interests me in the Board of Longitude context is the relationship between Perry’s and Hogarth’s series, and particularly between the last images in each series, where Hogarth’s includes my cherished ‘longitude lunatic’ (who also adorns our project logo). Perry has created a story of enslavement to social appearance and taste choices in the 21st century that echoes Hogarth’s 18th-century story where Tom Rakewell was slowly destroyed by his attempt to lead the life of a sociable rake, whoring, gambling and holding expensive parties after acquiring of riches on the death of his miserly father. Tim Rakewell rises from working class origins in Sunderland to a stately home in the Cotswalds due to his development and sale of a software company. His taste journey takes him around Britain, where Tom’s keeps him firmly in London. Tom’s topographic settings are part of how Hogarth makes his point, just as Tim’s are for Perry.
Perry also rejoices in a wealth of domestic detail to show Tim’s world in the way that I love so much in Hogarth. Each tapestry draws directly on objects we have seen Perry encounter in the houses that he visits in the programmes. A graduation photo or tattoo here, an Aga or penguin classics mug there show the worlds through which Tim moves. There is also, throughout, the pervasive presence of Apple products, perfectly showing the importance of aspirational commercial consumption. This is precisely what we see in Tom’s choices of clothing or art works in Hogarth. Perry also makes subtle use of text in the tapestries on newspapers, advertisement boards, iPad screens and protest signs, just as Hogarth did with the handwritten proposals or printed broadsheets of Tom Rakewell’s contemporaries. Text is also incorporated into the background of Perry’s images, as ribbons between different sections, or on walls and pieces of furniture.
But, the final tapestry - #lamentation – surprised me by following Hogarth even more closely. Here the text appears as columns of narrative in a strip across the bottom of the image, in exactly the manner of the poems in Hogarth’s engravings. Likewise, the composition of Tim Rakewell dying on the floor in the arms of a paramedic, after a car crash, directly copies the pose of Hogarth’s Tom in Bedlam, as well as in the classic works portraying the lamentation over the dead Christ which Perry’s title references directly. Thus, Tim is the direct iconographic as well as conceptual modern version of Tom. The fashionably-dressed, voyeuristic women who watch Tom in Bedlam become Tim’s glamorous new wife who walks away from the car crash unharmed. The cells of Bedlam become the kebab shop and petrol station behind Tim, the Bedlam inmates become the passers-by who photograph Tim’s death on their phones and post it to Twitter with the hashtag ‘lamentation.’
But what does the longitude problem become? The composition is so related that you can see the longitude diagram directly behind Tim. It is the smashed windscreen of his expensive racing car symbolising, perhaps, the mad rush after branded goods which, Perry suggests, are making a car crash out of British society as the economy plunges into recession. He makes much the same point as Hogarth’s lunatic made, where he highlighted the rush of 18th-century projectors after the unsolvable longitude problem. Or perhaps our longtime diagram is actually the BP logo on the petrol station tower? The modern version of the longitude problem, is modern society’s greedy consumption of fossil fuels which damage the environment and make our consumer lifestyles less and less sustainable for the future?
I have been looking for two years for a modern equivalent to the longitude problem, and I think that Grayson Perry may have found it.
I have recently been working on a small display at the Royal Observatory (opening next month) called Measuring the Universe. Despite being small-scale the topic is – in every sense – vast. The Observatory’s Public Astronomer, Marek Kukula, and I are trying to cover the history of measurements of the scale of the solar system, the distance to the nearest stars, the space between galaxies and to the Cosmic Microwave Background. This takes us from the Earth to the edge of the known universe, and from Greeks to researchers today.
I have been focusing on the story of measuring the Astronomical Unit, that is the distance between the Earth and the Sun, and mainly on the use of the rare astronomical phenomenon of the transit of Venus to measure solar parallax. In 1761, 1769, 1874 and 1882 there were a huge number of observations made, across the world, motivated by the hope of establishing a scale for the workings of the Newtonian solar system, thereby improving astronomical theory and predictions, but also by a range of practical, geographical, national and imperial interests. A useful list of historic transit observations can be found here.
There are three good reasons for turning over half of the exhibition to this story: 1) there is a transit of Venus happening this June, probably the last opportunity to see it in any of our lifetimes 2) the Royal Observatory and its staff were much involved in the effort of organising expeditions, observing transits and reducing the data to produce results and 3) transit observations required overseas expeditions, as measuring solar parallax required observations from different latitudes, which involved maritime navigation, exploration and a host of themes of interest to the ROG, the NMM and me, as curator and a member of the Longitude project team.
Distilling down a story that includes Edmond Halley, Nevil Maskelyne, James Cook, George Airy and a host of the ROG’s assistants – to indicate just a few on the British side – has been challenging, to say the least! The main mission is to convey an idea of the method, the amount of organisation and effort required, the international nature of the enterprise, and the wide interest that it evoked, well beyond the scientific world. With the international story, I have tried to show that the co-operation that took place with regard to promoting expeditions and collating results was probably less significant than the national rivalries, the dangers of travelling during the war, and the selection of locations for observing that related directly to imperial and trading interests.
There are so many fascinating stories to which we cannot do justice in the available space. I am hoping to include one of the best – the sad tale of Guillaume Le Gentil – but it is impossible to explore the background fully. This includes the Seven Years’ War and, specifically, the French/British rivalry in the Indian Ocean and desire for access to India and trade routes. This military and geopolitical history does not always get enough attention in the story of longitude. Not only did overseas trade and competition provide a spur to finding a solution, the process of finding one was sometimes impeded by war (for example, when Harrison’s first timekeeper was to be tested, they were unable initially to make the journey to the West Indies required by the 1714 Act), and sometimes , of course, contributed to the extension of imperial interests – as in the voyages of Cook and those who followed.
Because the history of transit observations is wound up with that of Cook (his first voyage was a transit expedition, as well as a testing ground for the new Nautical Almanac and a mission to locate and claim the southern continent), the current interest surrounding the 2012 transit has encouraged some to think about longitude and navigation. I spotted, on The Transit of Venus site blog, a post by Nick Lomb on How Cook navigated to Tahiti. This includes a discussion of the extent to which Cook knew “his position at all times” as a result of having access to the first edition of the Nautical Almanac. This mainly focuses on the point that lunar distances won’t work in cloudy skies, but misses the fact that Cook and Charles Green (the official astronomer, and former ROG assistant) ran out of Nautical Almanac predictions over the course of the voyage and that the length of time it took to calculate position by lunar distance usually meant that the navigator would only know where he had been rather than where he currently was. Precise position for charting and, especially, for locating observers of the transit of Venus would have been carried out by observing transits of Jupiter’s satellites rather than, or as well as, lunar distances.
Readers of this blog might also be interested in the current voyage of the replica of Cook’s ship, HMB Endeavour, owned by the Australian National Maritime Museum. The crew is currently cirumnavigating Australia and will stop at Lord Howe Island (named after Richard Howe, a regular attendee of Board of Longitude meetings in the 1760s, as Treasurer of the Navy, and in the 1780s, as First Lord of the Admiralty) to observe the transit of Venus. Those on board, either for the whole circumnavigation or for the transit of Venus leg, will be learning and using 18th-century sailing and navigation techniques. I am assuming that they have 21st-century backup!
I too recently went to Edinburgh and was impressed by the reopened museum. As Katy says, the open vistas and object wall are a great introduction to the Museum’s space and collections. I also enjoyed the range of approaches in the galleries, where chronology was often treated fairly loosely. There were some fairly subtle themes, for example about particular collectors, which might be missed by a large portion of visitors but which gave those with more time another level of interpretation to engage with.
Like Katy, too, I was very happy to see astronomy, timekeeping and navigation represented, with a good dose of longitude. I was so excited, in fact, that I took this rather hazy photograph. It focuses on the labels rather than the objects, but it is always nice to see the Nautical Almanac taking its place in displays!
Richard and I will be back in Edinburgh next week, for a workshop on ‘Geography, Technology and Instruments of Exploration‘, so perhaps one of us could take a slightly more aesthetically pleasing picture then! In the mean time, here is the NMS’s page on this gallery, called ‘Earth in Space‘.
As you will see from their site, this gallery is part of the general ‘science bit’, set in a room beyond the stuff-animals-and-biology bit, and distinct from the industry-and-technology and the decorative-arts bits. The blurb goes:
What is out there? Where do we fit into the Universe? People have always been fascinated by what lies beyond our planet. Technology helps us investigate these big questions. Scientists use evidence from Earth and space to understand more about the Universe and the origins of life.
And, hence, the gallery includes not only medieval to 19th-century astronomical instruments, clocks and demonstration models, but also fossils, meteorites, films and interactive displays about modern astronomy and a model of DNA.
To me it seems a shame that these objects were thus removed from their historical context. During this project, and in thinking about future longitude-themed displays, we have been considering such instruments in connection with a whole range of themes: changing manufacturing processes, a developing consumer society, maritime trade and empire to name the most obvious. It seems a shame to hide these connections and to depersonalise the objects and the knowledge they helped produce or share. Finding longitude wasn’t (just) a scientific problem about knowing where we are, it was about practice, pragmatics, economics and politics.
Science and its material culture are, in fact, represented elsewhere in the museum. There are, for example, galleries on ‘Art and Industry‘ and ‘Inspired by Nature‘, and the Scottish galleries bring science and technology into a general account of Scotland’s history. Likewise, it is good to see some historical objects brought into the ‘Natural World‘ displays, of which the ‘Earth in Space’ gallery is part. However, a nagging feeling remains that there is an unnecessary divide created between (pure, objective, depersonalised) science and (human, contextualised) art, industry and culture. Or perhaps, for museums which aim to interest a whole range of groups and to create galleries that can link to aspects of the national curriculum, such divisions are unavoidable?
I have been in Edinburgh this weekend for an art history conference, presenting about madness in relationship to longitude in my usual plate from The Rake’s Progress by William Hogarth. The conference was rewarding and stimulating, involving a range of papers that considered madness on the intersection between science and art. I learnt a lot and met some fascinating people.
This also gave me the chance to soak up some culture and atmosphere in the ‘Athens of the North,’ and my first port of call was, of course, the newly re-vamped National Museum of Scotland. It is stunning. From the grand gallery that resembles a Victorian bird-cage, vistas open up into the surrounding galleries on ‘Natural World,’ ‘World Cultures,’ ‘Art and Design’ and ‘Science and Technology.’ One whole wall of the grand gallery is also taken up by a brilliant ‘Window on the World’ which pulls together 800 objects as a snapshot on the collection. I loved the juxtaposition of bicycles with Isnik tiles.
But what was most exciting was to see an entire case devoted to navigation at sea within the ‘Earth in Space’ gallery! It’s good to see the problem of longitude given such prominence in a consideration of the relationship between the earth and the heavens. The case focuses on local hero Alexander Dalrymple and his work on mapping and hydrography for the East India Company, but it also includes all our old favourites in the instrument story. Backstaffs, precision chronometers, and the Nautical Almanac, sit happily in this gallery alongside rocks, minerals and a giant trilobite. Lets hope that interest in longitude lasts as long as the trilobite apparently will!
It seems that questions current to our project are active in my head all the time these days. You wouldn’t think that the new show curated by Grayson Perry at the British Museum, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, would have much to do with the problem of longitude, but it raised some interesting questions for me when I visited this weekend.
The show itself is surprisingly effective, charming and thought provoking. It presents Perry’s highly personal response to the British Museum through a combination of his own work and his selection of objects from the collections, with a personalised label commentary. It works around concepts of craftsmanship, culturally constructed meaning, and the sanctity of objects. This not only links nicely to questions that we’re considering in the ‘Things’ seminar in Cambridge this term (which you can follow on a separate blog), but also reminded me of ideas raised by Eoin in his fascinating paper, at the Exploring Empire conference in July at the National Maritime Museum, on the meaning of chronometers during the mutiny on the Bounty.
More specifically, two objects got me thinking. The first, Head of a Fallen Giant (2008) (which you can see in the photostream here) is described by Perry as his attempt to create an ‘English ethnographic object.’ Resembling a cross between a barnacle-encrusted skull and a corroded mine this is ‘the skull of a decaying maritime power.’ I was struck at the high proportion of technological objects that were included in the encrusting layer, as well as many images of coinage. What would a similar object for our period’s growing maritime superpower look like?
The second object was in the section on mapping, in which Perry’s point is how maps are culturally constructed, not just simple diagrams of reality. Of course, our entire project on longitude tells us that. Perry has included a large tapestry with a personal map of the British Museum surrounded by relevant London locations. This more specifically made me think of one of my most exciting finds to date, A New and Exact Map of Toryland, with the dangerous Rocks and Shoals of all the Jacobite Islands lying in the same Parallel nth ye Red Sea whose Latitude is 1688, and Longitude 1714 (1729), in the Bodleian Library. In this latitude and longitude were used as metaphors to navigate the eighteenth-century political landscape; a personal, cultural construction like Perry’s.
Thanks to Grayson Perry and the British Museum, for a very enjoyable visit which also got me thinking.
Following Becky’s trip across the pond three months ago, I spent last week on another journey to discuss possible overseas venues for the longitude exhibition we are planning.
My trip included the very splendid Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM) in Sydney, where there are great links to our project. This was clear from the moment the plane approached the airport, which is in Botany Bay, where Captain James Cook landed in 1770 during his first circumnavigation on HMS Endeavour. Whether you consider what followed as European settlement or colonisation, it was certainly a significant moment in Australian history, and determined where the First Fleet would land in 1788.
Not surprisingly, Cook and the First Fleet feature in the ANMM’s displays, which include material from the Cook voyage and from HMS Sirius, the flagship of the First Fleet, which was then wrecked off Norfolk Island in 1790. For our project, the First Fleet’s voyage is significant because it was one of several supported by the Board of Longitude. On this occasion they employed William Dawes as astronomer and lent many instruments to the expedition, including Larcum Kendall’s marine timekeeper K1, which had previously gone with Cook.
I could go on and on with these links: Matthew Flinders, Captain Bligh and the Bounty, for instance, are all important stories in Sydney and to us. But there are also some other less obvious avenues we are exploring in thinking about the exhibition. One of these concerns VOC voyages to the Dutch East Indies in the seventeenth century. To get to their destination, the Dutch ships would sail east from the Cape of Good Hope until they reckoned it was time to head north to what is now Indonesia. The problem came in estimating that east-west position, which is where some came to grief, most famously the Batavia, which was wrecked off the coast of Western Australia – the beginning of a long and sorry tale. Its story would make a good introduction to the importance of knowing your longitude and to why people were making long voyages in unfamiliar waters.
You can probably tell I’m brimming with ideas from the trip, so let’s hope an Australian leg of the tour does come about. Much planning to do before then, though!
Image: material from HMS Sirius on display at the Australian National Maritime Museum. By the way, the anchor is huge!