Last week I spent a pleasant couple of days in the Netherlands, taking in Amsterdam, Leiden and The Hague, mainly looking at items we hope to borrow for the exhibition we are planning for next year.
The Netherlands is an obvious place to go, of course, since it has such an extraordinarily rich maritime history going back way before 1714. Coming to the Scheepvaartmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, you are left in no doubt why seafaring countries were searching for ways of improving navigation generally.
The replica of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) ship, the Amsterdam, which began long-distance voyages in 1749, shows vividly just how much valuable cargo could be lost if the ship went astray.
As the Scheepvaartmuseum displays remind you, however, the Dutch Golden Age was in the 17th century, and it was some of the attempts to develop effective methods of determining longitude in that period that I was particularly keen to have a look at. Some are in the Scheepvaartmuseum, of course, including a fine collection of navigational instruments, but I was also able to get into the newly reopened and very impressive Rijksmuseum (Tip: get there early), where there’s a lot of material relating to the VOC and Dutch activities overseas. As far as longitude matters are concerned, the most intriguing is a group of instruments found at Nova Zembla, which include an astrolabium catholicum and a copper plate believed to have been used for determining longitude by magnetic variation. I was also rather surprised to come across a pocket nocturnal and astrolabe belonging to René Descartes.
The rest of the trip was focused on Christiaan Huygens (of whom Descartes was a family friend, incidentally), whose groundbreaking horological work included many attempts to perfect timekeepers for determining longitude at sea. I was lucky enough to look at some original manuscripts at Leiden University Library, which holds a huge number of his letters and other writings, as well as visiting the Museum Boerhaave, for whom Huygens is naturally an important figure. They have a very nice 1930s reconstruction of one of his marine clocks, as well as an 18th century longitude timekeeper designed by Lotharius Zumbag de Koesfelt and later made by his son.
In fact, the reconstructed Huygens sea clock is currently in a special exhibition about Constantijn and Christiaan Huygens in The Hague (where they are buried), as is a very fine portrait of Christiaan by Caspar Netscher. The exhibition has some nice ideas, in particular in trying to get across how well-connected Constantijn and Christiaan were and a digital ‘Wall of Plenty’ that allows you to explore the amazing diversity of Huygens’ scientific and technical interests. Nonetheless, I did feel that the exhibition could have had a bit more substance, a bit less design. It did, however, give me the frightening experience of remembering what I looked like with hair:
Not one for the faint-hearted!
Richard blogged about his tourist trips to sites in Germany associated with Tobias Mayer back in 2011, so I thought it only fair to give John Harrison his turn in the spotlight. Last week I braved the snow in Yorkshire to head over to the neighbouring villages of Nostell and Foulby, where Harrison started life.
The plaque on the house where Harrison was born in Foulby, Yorkshire
First up on the visit, was the site of the house where Harrison was born. Sadly the house itself was demolished years ago, but a blue plaque on its replacement commemorates Harrison. It mentions his baptism in the local church, and his childhood in Foulby. I was interested in the nuanced language of the way it recounts Harrison’s work on longitude: ‘the inventor of the marine chronometer which first allowed the location of longitude at sea by mechanical means.’ Nice recognition that he wasn’t the only person involved, and that the chronometer wasn’t the only method in play.
This house is on the road just next to the walls of the Nostell Priory estate. Now in the hands of the National Trust, Nostell belonged to the Winn family from the 1650s until the 1950s, and is most famous for its glorious Adam interiors and the best-archived and largest collection of Chippendale furniture in the country. All of the furniture was designed for Nostell, to work with the Adam interiors. Along with the painter Antonio Zucchi, these three were the dream team. The house also features one of the first longcase clocks made by Harrison, in 1717, with an almost entirely wooden mechanism. Seeing it alongside these iconic neo-classical, rococo, and chinoiserie interiors, is an apt reminder of how Harrison’s work developed alongside these changing fashions. Both Harrison and Chippendale started work at Nostell, before moving to London. It is tantalising to think that they might have known each other.
The face of Harrison's longcase clock at Nostell Priory.
The case of the Harrison clock is a Victorian replacement but the face and workings are original, and visible through glass panels in the sides. It is a prime piece at Nostell, which the room guides discuss with evident pride. Interestingly, though, I learnt that it has not always been at Nostell, as I had assumed, but was brought by the then Lord St Oswald (Rowland Winn was created 1st Baron St Oswald in 1885), in a sale in the nineteenth century and returned to its former home. This helps to remind us of the changing fortunes of Harrison’s timepieces, not always the beautifully conserved and cherished pieces that we expect today.
Last summer, despite the rain, our national life was enlivened not only by the Olympics, but also by the Queen’s jubilee. One of the things that struck me during the many events was the prominence accorded to the Thames. One of the major events of the Jubilee was the Thames pageant, in self-conscious reference to Canaletto; the river hosted the Olympic rowing and acted as a stunning backdrop for views of the equestrian events at Greenwich; and the Paralympic opening ceremony had a decidedly watery theme. The Thames has always been, and remains central to the physical and conceptual life of the capital. And yet, given that it’s a big, navigable waterway it seldom appears in the story of the longitude problem. One notable exception would be the Harrisons’ complaint in 1767 that Nevil Maskelyne had transported their timekeepers by land to Greenwich, rather than by boat, causing them to be ‘broke to Pieces.’
Such questions about the physical negotiation of metropolitan space in solving the longitude problem are something that I’m going to consider when I take up the Caird Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum next year. I was given a helping hand recently when I accompanied my undergraduate students on a walking tour of eighteenth-century London with Dr Larry Klein. We were lucky enough to be given access to the Royal Society of Arts which still inhabits its original Adam building by Embankment. The Great Room at the RSA is decorated with murals by James Barry which show The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture (all of which you can see online thanks to the ‘Your Paintings‘ project). Barry started these in 1777 and they were first exhibited in 1783. The series features six murals showing the progress from Orpheus to Elysium, or the State of Final Retribution. I was excited to see that Barry’s pantheon of ‘great and good men of all ages’ includes Hogarth and Swift among many others.
More interestingly, though, the penultimate painting in the series Commerce, or the Triumph of the Thames, shows Father Thames steering his path to commercial triumph with the rudder in one hand and compass in the other. His bark is carried by ‘the great navigators’: Sir Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Sebastian Cabot, and our own longitude proponent Captain James Cook (his portrait is clearly copied from the Nathaniel Dance-Holland portrait now at the NMM). Given that Cook had only returned from his first voyage on the Resolution the year before Barry was given the commission, and the Endeavour voyage had only returned in 1771 this shows the speed with which Cook’s skills at navigating, aided notably by Kendal’s copy (K1) of Harrison’s timekeeper, quickly made him a recognised ‘national treasure.’
Looking up at Cook, I was reminded of another painted paean to national maritime success further down the river: the Painted Hall at Greenwich Old Royal Naval College, completed by Sir James Thornhill in 1714 (also a notable date for longitude as we know). Richard Johns pointed out to me that the figures behind the balustrade over the entrance to the lower hall include Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed observing the sky through his telescope to create the infamous star catalogues Historia coelestis necessary to establish the lunar distance method of finding longitude. The move over 70 years from Thornhill’s Flamsteed in Greenwich to Barry’s Cook by Embankment shows us not only the slow embedding of accurate chronometers as a rival solution to celestial observation for finding longitude at sea, but also the way that the problem and its proponents moved from royally patronised baroque Greenwich to the commercial, sublime environs of the RSA in the West End. The Thames is there in the story, but perhaps not in the way we would expect.
John Harrison, Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by the Rev. Mr Maskelyne, under the Authority of the Board of Longitude
(London, 1767), pp.22-3
A San Francisco marina (© Alexi Baker)
- During a presentation not too long ago, the curator and conservator Dr Mary Brooks mentioned questions having been raised about how much of the Cutty Sark is still original after the ravages of time and fire. This set me to thinking about ships as ‘museum objects’, and specifically about the historical ships and other maritime sites which I visited in California earlier this year. As I saw in San Francisco and San Diego, historical ships which are still afloat are somewhat different from many other types of museum objects, as they are often used to great effect both as exhibition space and as a means of evoking the past experience of life and work at sea. This may put them in a somewhat different category than most objects in the debate among curators and conservators over reflections of and reactions to the fragility and decay and authenticity of material culture, about which Dr. Brooks spoke.
- In both San Francisco and San Diego there are many historical resources and sites which educate about and evoke the long history of people and the sea on the Golden Cost including historical plaques, museums and historical ships, and memorials and ruins. The stories told encompass maritime travel, trade, defense and technology, as well as seaside living up to the modern day – most often starting with the so-called ‘Age of Exploration’ and the arrival of the Spaniards rather than with the seafaring of local Native American tribes. I thought that most of these sites and resources were especially strong at evoking the human or individual experience of life and work at sea through first-hand accounts, biographies, and material objects and tableaux (albeit without enough claustrophobia and stench and noise to be realistic!).
- I started my visit to California in San Francisco, which has many maritime history sites and plaques near the bay and at Fisherman’s Wharf (where the plaques mainly told of the still extant Italian-dominated fishing industry). Sadly all but the lobby of the maritime museum was closed for renovations. However, it was still worth a visit to the striking Art Deco / Streamline Moderne building to see a small number of objects and paintings which told the story of interesting local vessels such as the Niantic, and to see the original WPA artwork painted and overseen by Hilaire Hiler when the building first opened as a public bathhouse. The latter includes tile mosaics of fish on the exterior of the building and psychedelic maritime-themed murals inside, including a 120-color circular spectrum on the ceiling based upon Hiler’s unique ‘sensational’ colour theory. (The author and painter Henry Miller considered these the only murals then worth seeing in the United States.)
Mural by Hilaire Hiler in the San Francisco maritime museum (© Alexi Baker)
A tile mosaic at the San Francisco maritime museum (© Alexi Baker)
- In addition to a separate Visitor Center, the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park maintains a fleet of historic vessels at the Hyde Street Pier including: the square-rigged sailing ship Balclutha from 1886; the schooner C.A. Thayer from 1895; the steam ferryboat Eureka from 1890; the scow schooner Alma from 1891; the steam tug Hercules from 1907; and the paddlewheel tug Eppleton Hall from 1914. There are exhibitions and tableaux on some of the main vessels which help to evoke the experience and the hierarchies of life aboard ship during centuries past, and a boat builders’ workshop on the pier.
- There are also a variety of park events which accomplish the same, including sea chantey sing-a-longs and onboard concerts, sail raising demonstrations, visits from costumed players, films and lectures, wildlife and walking tours, and periodically trips on the Alma. When I visited, a group of schoolchildren were being taught how to man the Balclutha and were going to spend the night.
Alcatraz and the 'Balclutha' in San Francisco (© Alexi Baker)
- There were materials about and remnants of the local maritime history in many other locations in San Francisco as well, for example at the Presidio which was first fortified in the eighteenth century, at the memorial for the USS San Francisco in the striking Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and at the nearby ruins of the Sutro Baths (which first drew in millions of gallons of seawater for the health of bathers during the late nineteenth century). Perhaps the most unabashedly fun site was the Musée Mécanique with its hundreds of working mechanical games, automata, and music players, and early forms of moving pictures from the late nineteenth through the twentieth centuries and from Europe as well as America. These objects, and the museum’s accompanying background material and historical photographs, vividly evoked entertainment at the seaside.
The ruins of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco (© Alexi Baker)
The mechanical tableau 'A Message from the Sea' at the Musée Mécanique (© Alexi Baker)
The somewhat disturbing automaton 'Jolly Jack' (© Alexi Baker)
- From San Francisco I journeyed to San Diego, where historical plaques and sites tell similar narratives about California’s maritime past over the last five centuries. The San Diego Maritime Museum houses some very interesting collections and a temporary art exhibition aboard the 1898 ferryboat Berkeley. The museum, like that in San Francisco, also hosts a wide variety of events to evoke and entertain. These include bay and whale-watching tours on some of the ships, sea chantey days, learning to be sailors, overnight visits, mock cannon battles – and even a twelve-week course on celestial navigation! The museum’s other vessels include: the merchant bark Star of India from 1863; the steam yacht Medea from 1904; the 1914 harbor pilot boat Pilot; a Soviet Foxtrot class submarine B-39; the diesel-electric submarine USS Dolphin launched in 1968; a 1984 replica of an 1847 cutter the Californian; and a 1970 replica of a Royal Navy frigate the HMS Surprise. (The replicas add another level to the discussion of ‘authenticity’ when it comes to vessels kept at maritime museums and parks. The Surprise has appeared in movies including Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.)
The HMS 'Surprise' and the 'Star of India', as seen against the San Diego skyline from the 'Berkeley' (© Alexi Baker)
- A number of the ships still afloat contain exhibitions, displays and tableaux which are evocative (despite, again, not being able to depict conditions in a realistically cramped and riotous enough manner). I thought that these were most successful when they included the stories and sometimes the photographs and testimonials of individuals who worked or traveled on the ships in centuries past.
- It was fascinating to tour the retired Soviet submarine as well, which I had not expected, in part because of the quality of the descriptions of the uses and human experience of each space on the vessel. It was interesting to see so much in the way of hierarchies (including in the allocation of space), logistics, technologies, and regulations carried over from service above the waves. Despite perks including better food, it must have been difficult serving in such cramped conditions, where most men had little if any private space of their own and very limited access to toilets and showers. (No wonder hundreds of illicit vodka bottles were found hidden on board during restoration!)
- The collections on the ferry Berkeley were very interesting if in some ways ‘haphazard’, jumping all over in time and place. Items which stand out in my memory include a Catholic altar from a local Italian-American fishing boat, educational models from World War II of the profiles of different ships, a ‘fishing log’ used to attract shoals of fish during the twentieth century, and archival photographs from the canneries and from the histories of specific vessels, etc. I was also very pleased to see that the small displays telling the story of early modern European navigation included elements which haven’t always reached popular tellings of the longitude story – such as the Royal Observatory‘s having been founded to help ships better keep longitude at sea, Edmond Halley and others’ efforts at developing a longitude method based on magnetic variation, the development and importance of the Nautical Almanac, and marine chronometers’ not having gone into wider use until later in the nineteenth century.
The Soviet submarine 'B-39' in San Diego (© Alexi Baker)
Inside the submarine 'B-39' (© Alexi Baker)
- Finally, I visited the aircraft carrier turned museum USS Midway, which, like the submarine, proved surprisingly interesting to me. Again, this was mainly because the museum’s exhibition designers have done such a good job at explaining how people lived and worked in the vast array of spaces on the ship, from the hierarchy of crew quarters and dining halls to the dentists’ and barbers’ offices. This is in part accomplished through a liberal use of archival photographs and quotations from former crew members about their experiences in the different parts of the carrier. The Midway was commissioned shortly after World War II, was the largest ship in the world until 1955, and was decommissioned in 1992.
The aircraft carrier USS 'Midway', now a museum in San Diego (© Alexi Baker)
The flight deck on the USS 'Midway' (© Alexi Baker)
- After visiting so many different maritime history sites and vessels in San Francisco and San Diego, what stands out most to me (besides the sites’ good evocation of life at sea) is the great degree of continuity. The interpersonal hierarchies, the uses and hierarchical allocation of space aboard ship, and the core technologies employed remained very similar on seagoing vessels from the ‘search for the longitude’ and often earlier until at least the late twentieth-century. Our well-informed former-Navy guide on the USS Midway made a point of telling us that many long-standing technologies such as the sextant and approaches such as charting by hand remained in use on that vessel until it was decommissioned, since GPS did not become fully operational until 1994. While innovative new tools including the sextant, the marine chronometer and the Nautical Almanac improved navigation as they were (often slowly) adopted by the fleets – stability may have been the most common experience over the centuries!
Traditional navigational tools used on the USS 'Midway' until the 1990's (© Alexi Baker)
Last week I was lucky enough to be in America again, to attend a conference at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This was hosted by the Centre for British and Irish Studies and was on ‘The Rake’s Progress.’ Readers of this blog who’ve seen my posts in the past will know that this was something I couldn’t miss! You can read my tweets from the conference here.
The conference was a particularly stimulating experience. Conceived as an interdisciplinary event, it considered not only the Hogarth prints and paintings on which I work, but also the opera by Stravinsky along with the libretto by Auden and Kallman, and the famous stage sets by David Hockney that go with this. I blogged last year about a production of the opera (without the Hockney sets) that Alexi, Sophie and I attended in Cambridge. I was struck then by ways in which the opera picks up on key themes in the Hogarth prints which are also key to the longitude story.
Applying to speak at this conference gave me the opportunity to think about Hockney’s stage sets for the opera, in which he built fascinatingly on Hogarth’s prints. Every detail of the sets draws on one or other print, and builds a whole world out of Hogarth’s cross-hatched aesthetic. They are truly wonderful sets, the designs for which you can see here. I was immediately struck by how Hockney’s Bedlam prioritises graffiti on the wall, as practiced by my cherished longitude lunatic, so was thrilled to find that longitude was, in fact, his inspiration. Hockney told an interviewer in the 1980s, ‘Where do you think I got the idea to use graffiti in the Bedlam scene? From Hogarth … of course. I suddenly realised that in his Bedlam drawing, one of the madmen is scribbling a map of the world on the wall. Then I thought about what the walls of Bedlam must have been covered with.’ Gold dust for me! In researching for the talk, I have been thinking more and more about subsequent responses to Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress and going back to my thoughts on Grayson Perry’s tapestry series about which I posted here in July. I’ve realised that these are the makings of my PhD conclusion.
I therefore found it particularly helpful to hear the range of discussions at the conference, thinking about how Stravinsky, Auden, Kallman and Hockney picked up on Hogarth’s ideas. We were lucky enough to have the well-known art critic and personal friend of Hockney, Lawrence Weschler, give the keynote lecture, where he argued that the extreme one-point perspective that Hockney creates in his version of Bedlam was what he saw as mad in artistic representation. Showing us the range of Hockney’s subsequent paintings, photo montages and film pieces (many of which also inspired my turn to Hockney when the RA displayed them earlier this year) he argued that the rest of Hockney’s career has been the attempt to escape from this perspectival ‘vice.’ This all seemed to mesh nicely with my thoughts on longitude and latitude as enmeshing grids in eighteenth-century satire.
Matthew Paul Carlson spoke about Auden and Kallman’s libretto, arguing that they create a narrative in which Tom Rakewell is lost in space and time. Nick Shadow, the devil, removes him from the flow of time when in the brothel, and it is only repetitive acts that keep him conscious of time and orientate him in later scenes. This struck me as very apt for the longitude problem too, and the repetitions of trials and calculations central to finding a solution. Abigail Zitin particularly appealed to me with her consideration of Hogarth’s treatise on art theory, The Analysis of Beauty. She argued for the important multiple meanings of the word wanton in Hogarth’s description of the line of beauty as a ‘wanton line.’ This is not just wanton in the impure sense, but also in the wilful, wandering and wishful sense: the pleasure in being led without knowing exactly to where. Again, this struck me as much like the process experienced by the Board of Longitude, although they might not always have enjoyed it.
It also nicely characterises my own ‘progress’ in researching Hogarth and Hockney for the PhD, I might not always be sure where I’m going, but I’m certainly enjoying getting there!
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’.
Any readers of this blog who also follow my own blog or twitter feed, will have seen that I have spent 5 weeks of the summer in the US, researching pamphlet and visual materials in the collections there, as well as speaking at the 3 Societies conference about which Becky has posted already. I spent time in Philadelphia, Boston, New York, New Haven and Farmington, visiting a mixture of libraries and museums and discussing my work with some very helpful and supportive American academics. My huge thanks to the Paul Mellon Centre for awarding me the funds to make the trip.
I could write a whole series of posts about the materials that I found, but a few items really stood out. I will never forget balancing on a ladder in the middle of the map room at the New York Public Library (which is, irrespective, a spectacular building, even more so than you have seen in Ghostbusters, Sex and the City, and other blockblusters), in order to get a full photograph of a magnetic map from 1745. This was A correct chart of the terraqueous globe, according to Mercator’s, or more properly Wright’s projection, on which are describ’d lines, shewing the variation of the magnetic needle according to observations made about the year 1744, which was released by William Mountaine and James Dodson, updating the observations and subsequent map produced by Edmond Halley in 1702. A pamphlet produced alongside this discussed the processes of calculating and drawing the lines of magnetic variation, so links in nicely to what I discussed at 3 Societies on the visualisations of longitude. Mountaine and Dodson produced a further update in 1756 of which a number of copies survive, but as far as I have been able to ascertain, the NYPL has the only copy of the 1745 version.
Another week, and another beautiful bulding saw me in New Haven at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library. Here the magnificent books are all on display in a central glass tower (much like the British Library) and glow in the light from the translucent marble walls. It is mesmerising. In the, luckily slightly less distracting, reading room, I discovered two single handbills produced by two ‘longitudinarians’ who found themselves ignored by the Commissioners. Both Case Billingsley and Conyers Purshall produced handbills in 1714, in response to the longitude act, directly addressing the Commissioners. We have discussed many times, as a project (see for instance a previous post by Alexi), how pamphleteers might have interacted with the Commissioners before our first official meeting minutes appear in 1737. This gives us one method. Purshall had produced a pamphlet solving longitude in 1705, Billingsley one soon after the act in 1714, but both used a handbill format to update their schemes, make them sound more practical, answer criticisms which they foresaw, and to address the commissioners directly. It was just such handbills which were attached to the railings around Bethlehem Hospital in Moorfields, where William Hogarth placed the ‘longitude lunatic’ about which I have posted many times (such as).
Courtesy of The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University
Indeed, hours spent poring over Hogarth materials in the Yale Centre for British Art and the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington were some of my happiest parts of the trip. At the Lewis Walpole I looked through albums of Hogarth prints and ephemera collected by George Steevens, one of his first biographers, in the late eighteenth century. These included a group of satires on Hogarth, mostly by Paul Sandby, which tie wonderfully with my discussions of madness and genius in relationship to the longitude problem. Among these was another (anonymous) handbill, satirising Hogarth’s new art theory based around the ‘line of beauty’ as like him trying to create a new theory of the sun. The handbill states that this ‘will be printed on a new invented Fool’s Cap paper’, a nice play on the intellectual and material overlap of the satire, and a reminder to me of the sheer joy of seeing the materiality of these pamphlets, handbills and prints, giving myself a tiny part of the physical experiences of my longitude actors.
The Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia tips its cap to Captain Cook — still revered, as he was in his own time, by many people around the world — by displaying one of the cannons from his first voyage to the Pacific. The Academy, founded in 1812 and now the oldest natural history museum in the United States, sent an expedition to the Great Barrier Reef in 1969 to collect different species of fish and to identify where the Endeavour ran aground there in 1770. (The French explorer Louis de Bougainville had been the first European to discover the reef two years earlier.) The Endeavour’s crew had to throw as much overboard as possible in order to float free of the reef, including the ship’s six heavy cannons, ballasts and anchor, as Cook related in his voyage journal:
Monday, 11th. [...] Before 10 o’Clock we had 20 and 21 fathoms, and Continued in that depth until a few minutes before 11, when we had 17, and before the Man at the Lead could heave another cast, the Ship Struck and stuck fast. Immediately upon this we took in all our Sails, hoisted out the Boats and Sounded round the Ship, and found that we had got upon the South-East Edge of a reef of Coral Rocks, having in some places round the Ship 3 and 4 fathoms Water, and in other places not quite as many feet, and about a Ship’s length from us on the starboard side (the Ship laying with her Head to the North-East) were 8, 10, and 12 fathoms. As soon as the Long boat was out we struck Yards and Topmast, and carried out the Stream Anchor on our Starboard bow, got the Coasting Anchor and Cable into the Boat, and were going to carry it out in the same way; but upon my sounding the 2nd time round the Ship I found the most water a Stern, and therefore had this Anchor carried out upon the Starboard Quarter, and hove upon it a very great Strain; which was to no purpose, the Ship being quite fast, upon which we went to work to lighten her as fast as possible, which seem’d to be the only means we had left to get her off. As we went ashore about the Top of High Water we not only started water, but threw overboard our Guns, Iron and Stone Ballast, Casks, Hoop Staves, Oil Jarrs, decay’d Stores, etc.; many of these last Articles lay in the way at coming at Heavier. All this time the Ship made little or no Water. At 11 a.m., being high Water as we thought, we try’d to heave her off without Success, she not being afloat by a foot or more, notwithstanding by this time we had thrown overboard 40 or 50 Tuns weight. As this was not found sufficient we continued to Lighten her by every method we could think off; as the Tide fell the ship began to make Water as much as two pumps could free: at Noon she lay with 3 or 4 Streakes heel to Starboard; Latitude observed 15 degrees 45 minutes South.
Cook named the area where this occurred ‘Cape Tribulation, because here began all our Troubles’. Divers with a magnetometer found and recovered the abandoned cannons, ballasts and anchor in 1969. One cannon was gifted to the Academy while the others went to museums in Australia, New Zealand and England. It seems appropriate that such relics from one of the most famous European expeditions of exploration of the Earth were recovered just half a year before the first Apollo lunar landing set a new precedent for human exploration.
Images: Alexi Baker.
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 thought I was having a few days away from the Board of Longitude at the end of May, with a trip to Cornwall for a meeting at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum. I’d forgotten that I was staying in Penzance, where Humphry Davy was born and brought up.
Davy is obviously well remembered today for his role in the development of the Davy lamp and for his chemical researches. As President of the Royal Society from 1820 to 1827, however, he was also on the Board of Longitude in its final years before being wound up in 1828, and attended regularly between 1821 and 1826. This was a period when the Board’s role was changing considerably, with new activities including involvement in committees on ship tonnage and the improvement of glass, not to mention the foundation of the Cape Observatory.
This isn’t really what Davy is remembered for in Penzance, but remembered he certainly is. There’s a display in Penlee House Gallery and Museum, which commemorates him as a ‘scientist’, as does the large statue erected right in the centre of Penzance in 1872 (close to where he was born).
Of course, there are other ways than statues to celebrate local heroes:
You’ll be glad to know I raised a half in his memory.