Blazing bodies alight on canvas

Fire in the Sky
June 26, 1998

How many comets have you seen? If you live in the northern hemisphere, you can hardly have missed Hale-Bopp last year. In 1986, you might well have spotted Halley's comet, especially from the southern hemisphere. If you were looking in 1974, West was pretty astounding. But in general, bright comets are rare. So why have artists devoted enough attention to them for this bulky book of art and science - the result of a collaboration between a professor of astronomy (Jay Pasachoff) and one of art history (Roberta Olson) - to be filled by only a sample of what is available, art by British artists of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Part of the answer seems to be that a small number of spectacular comets account for the majority of comet art. In 1858, Donati's comet "mesmerised astronomers and artists", as this book puts it. There are 13 renditions of it here, even without my favourite of the comet over the Palais de Justice in Paris, ruled out on the grounds of nationality.

An art gallery could be filled with images of comets and meteors, although the cost would be prohibitive. Giotto's rendition, probably of Halley's comet, would be pretty costly, while the Halley shown in the Bayeux Tapestry is unlikely to come on the market. But this volume's ambitions are more specific than a survey of comet art. As the authors point out, the 18th and 19th centuries were not so much a golden age for British comet art as "the decisive centuries".

In the 17th century, Edmond Halley put his name into history by identifying the comet of 1682 with that seen in 1531 and 1607, and predicting its reappearance in 1758. His success was one of the most startling proofs of Newton's theory of gravitation. Like William Herschel's discovery of Uranus in 1781, it was a high point in English astronomy that brought the subject to popular attention.

This was an era when such skills as water-colouring were an accomplishment of any gentleman - and when scientific knowledge was as well. His drawing room might well house a "cometarium", a brass and wood device to illustrate the orbits of comets through the solar system, of which many were sold after the reappearance of Halley's comet. In terms of artistic technology, Olson and Pasachoff point out that watercolour was especially important in the development of comet art because the equipment is portable and it can be done fast. Its growth paralleled that of the more naturalistic and less classically influenced British school of landscape painters, who were careful to pay attention to the sky and the things in it.

However, it was not only naturalistic art that became comet-crazed in the 18th and 19th centuries. William Blake and his brother Robert (who died at the age of about 20) used more or less abstract comets and meteors in many illustrations, of which more than a dozen are reproduced in the book in black and white. Hogarth used a comet as part of his portrait of the fictional Lord Squanderfield to demonstrate his absurd pretentiousness, a line of attack based on actual paintings including, in this book, those of Arabella Stuart and Sir Thomas Hamilton. A clutch of other satirists and caricaturists found comets and meteors a useful tool for suggesting excessive ambition and impending doom. But at the same time, Blake's friend John Linnell produced comet art so realistic that it is indistinguishable from the sketches produced by astronomers, complete with real constellations in the background.

However, this book's biggest attraction is not this monochrome fare but the lavish meal of full-colour images it contains. Some of the most striking are of the great meteor of 1783, seen over southern England, which put meteors into the public imagination much as Halley did for comets. The book's colour reproduction was paid for by Gresham College in London as part of the college's 400th anniversary celebrations last year, and the book has a nice epilogue by Colin Pillinger, Gresham professor of astronomy (his predecessors include Sir Christopher Wren) on current and future comet studies, including proposed lander spacecraft.

Donati's comet of 1858, which spread across 60 degrees of the sky and had striking tails of dust and gas, was a watershed in more ways than one. It was recorded by outstanding artists such as Samuel Palmer and William Turner of Oxford, with works that would be great art even without the comet. As well as paintings, there were lithographs of the comet over London and scientific-quality engravings in The Illustrated London News. Sketches of the comet allowed details of the rotation of its nucleus to be determined, an advance that drew on the work of Charles Piazzi Smyth, at one time astronomer royal for Scotland. Piazzi Smyth produced genuinely beautiful comet paintings and insisted that high-quality drawing was a skill that astronomers should acquire and that would lead to discoveries if pursued with determination.

However, Donati's comet was also the first to yield to new imaging technology by having its photograph taken. The images (as seen in this book) are uninformative in comparison with those produced by sketching. But by 1882, the new technique of dry-plate photography allowed genuine comet structure to be photographed, as seen in an image taken at the Cape of Good Hope. Indeed, it was even possible to photograph the spectrum of the great comet of 1882, putting comet science on to a new plane by allowing the composition of comets to be assessed.

As Olson and Pasachoff point out, photography affected both comet science and the way artistic images were thought about. They cite a wide array of writers and artists, including many from the pre-Raphaelite school, who found comet and meteor images valuable. John Brett was a distinguished amateur astronomer and ally of the per-Raphaelites, especially John Ruskin. Thomas Hardy wrote comets into his texts and even drew at least one.

In the 20th century, even the representational artists still in business find little fun in comets. Perhaps as knowledge of them has grown and our ability to send spacecraft to them has become established, their mystique has diminished. This is in marked contrast to the 17th century, when the fact that comets were no longer threatening and mysterious was something that enthused artists.

At the same time, the authors suggest, our increasingly urban society and the spread of street lighting mean that the sky in general is less familiar than it was. The 1910 return of Halley's comet, for example, seems to have excited far more interest than the 1986 visit, although sellers of telescopes and binoculars had a rare bonanza when Hale-Bopp appeared.

In the modern era, our renewed awareness of comets is articulated in part by the realisation that one just might strike the Earth with catastrophic effect. The film Deep Impact has a comet as villain, prevented by kamikaze astronauts from perpetrating an "Extinction Level Event". The cognoscenti would have little trouble spotting many a technical error in the film, but more significant culturally is the way in which a new and apocalyptic message has been manufactured out of knowledge (in this case, the existence of earth-crossing small objects in the solar system) that we have always had. But it is good that comets should remain in the popular imagination, and in the modern era that means incorporating them into the work of Steven Spielberg rather than that of painters in water-colour.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES.

Fire in the Sky: Comets and Meteors, the Decisive Centuries, in British Art and Science

Author - Roberta J. M. Olson and Jay M. Pasachoff
ISBN - 0 521 63060 6
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £50.00
Pages - 369

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