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Acta Historica Astronomiae Vol. 9 - Smyth

On astronomical drawing [1846]

Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), Cape of Good Hope

Reprinted from the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society 15, 1846, pp. 71-82. With annotations and illustrations added by Klaus Hentschel.

The activities of the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), include the triangulation of South African districts, landscape painting, day-to-day or tourist sketching, the engraving and lithographing of prominent architectural sites, the documentary photography of the Egyptian pyramids or the Tenerife Dragon tree, and 'instant photographs' of the clouds above his retirement home in Clova, Ripon. His colorful records of the aurora polaris, and solar and terrestrial spectra all profited from his trained eye and his subtle mastery of the pen and the brush. As his paper on astronomical drawing, which we chose to reproduce in this volume, amply demonstrates, he was conversant in most of the print technology repertoire that the 19th century had to offer, and carefully selected the one most appropriate to each sujet. For instance, he chose mezzotint for the plates illustrating Maclear's observations of Halley's comet in 1835/36, so as to achieve a "rich profundity of shadows, the deep obscurity of which is admirably adapted to reproduce those fine effects of chiaroscuro frequently found in works where the quantity of dark greatly predominates." The same expertise with which he tried to emulate Rembrandt's chiaroscuro effects he applied to assessing William and John Herschel's illustrations of nebulae, which appeared in print between 1811 and 1834. William Herschel's positive engraving, made partly by stippling and partly by a coarse mezzotint, receives sharp admonishment because of the visible ruled crossed lines in the background and the fact that "the objects, which are also generally too light, [have] a much better definition than they really possess." On the other hand, John Herschel's illustration of nebulae and star clusters, given in negative, "in which the lights are the darkest part of the picture", finds his praise.


Bibliographical details:

Charles Piazzi Smyth: On astronomical drawing. In: Klaus Hentschel, Axel D. Wittmann (Eds.): The Role of Visual Representations in Astronomy: History and Research Practice (Acta Historica Astronomiae ; 9). Thun ; Frankfurt am Main : Deutsch, 2000, p. 66-78.