What the Abyssinian Liar Can Tell us about True Stories: Knowledge, Skepticism, and James Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile

James Bruce by E. Topham.  Etching, published 1775.  NPG D13789.  National Portrait Gallery, UK.  Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

James Bruce by E. Topham. Etching, published 1775.
NPG D13789. National Portrait Gallery, UK. Used under Creative Commons Limited Non-Commercial License.

In 1773, James Bruce of Kinnaird returned to Europe after a decade of travel and study in North East Africa and Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia).  Initially, the knowledge he brought back with him was favorably received by notable figures like the great naturalist the Comte de Buffon, Pope Clement XIV, King Louis XV, and Dr. Charles Burney, ethnomusicologist, composer, and father of author Frances Burney.  But as time went on, the public began to grow suspicious of some of his stories, such as his claims that he had eaten lion meat with a tribe in North Africa or that Abyssinian soldiers cut steaks from the rumps of live cows, then stitched the cows up again and sent them out to pasture.  As Bruce became a target of satirists and critics including Horace Walpole, John Wolcot, and Samuel Johnson, his standing in the European intellectual community began to slip.  Walpole, for example, circulated a commonly cited anecdote in which, during a dinner party, one of the guests asked Bruce if he saw any musical instruments in Abyssinia.  “Musical instruments,” said Bruce, and paused—“Yes I think I remember one lyre.”  The dinner guest then leaned to his neighbor and whispered, “I am sure there is one less since he came out of the country.”[1]

Despite having been dubbed the “Abyssinian liar,” Bruce always stood by his word, and in 1790, he published a sprawling, five-volume narrative of his journey in an attempt to satisfy those whom he claimed, “absurdly endeavoured to oblige me to publish an account of those travels, which they affected at the same time to believe I had never performed.”[2]  He titled the work the Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile because locating the source of the legendary river had been the primary purpose of Bruce’s journey.  He always maintained that he was the first European to have achieved that goal, even though contemporary translations of Portuguese travel narratives indicated that Jesuit missionaries had made it there first, and even though subsequent explorers would point out that he had traveled only to the source of the Blue Nile (Lake Tana in present-day Ethiopia), not the source of the much longer White Nile (Lake Victoria in present-day Uganda).  Nevertheless, the Travels was a bestseller, and the first printing sold out in 36 hours.  His tales influenced literary figures like Frances Burney, who wrote about Bruce’s visits to her childhood home in her journals, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose dulcimer-playing “Abyssinian maid” in Kubla Khan was likely inspired by engravings of the court women who were enormously influential to Bruce’s knowledge of the region.  Although it did little to repair his reputation at the time, his work contributed significantly to Western knowledge about Eastern Africa, and examining how the narrative sits on this paradoxical point between success and failure can tell us much about how knowledge and truth were culturally defined in the eighteenth century, during a time that laid the foundations for our own understanding of such concepts.  In particular, Bruce’s situation highlights the way that heterogeneity of storytelling can come in tension with the singularity of truth, and how narratives that resist synthesis can reveal important information about what it means for something to be a true story.

Although the Nile was Bruce’s main objective, as a polyglot, diplomat, artist, and amateur scientist, he imagined advancing all areas of learning, and in many ways he succeeded.  He recorded detailed descriptions of the people, architecture, and landscape from all across North East Africa.  He mapped star patterns and recorded geographical coordinates for navigators and astronomers.  The engravings and samples of plants and animals he collected were invaluable to antiquarians as well as scholars of botany, zoology, and medicine.  He recorded a thorough history of Abyssinia’s monarchy, wrote about the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and brought the Codex Brucianus back with him—a gnostic manuscript that contained one of the first copies of the Book of Enoch circulated in Europe.  He contributed to Dr. Burney’s History of Music.  Perhaps his most significant contribution to Western scholarship is his documentation of Abyssinian court life at the beginning of Ethiopia’s “Era of the Princes.”  He recounted extensive details about Emperor Tekle Haymanot II; about Məntəwwab, the commanding Dowager Empress of Ethiopia who had ruled as regent for several decades; about her clever and ambitious daughter Wäyzäro Aster; and about Aster’s extremely politically influential husband, the kingmaker Ras Mika’el Səḥul.  Although Bruce’s tone is often characterized by a sense of European exceptionalism when he writes about the court, the power and intelligence of these individuals is evident, as is Bruce’s obvious respect and admiration for them—particularly the women, to whom he often refers as his closest friends and allies in the country.

But if Bruce contributed to all these advances in Western knowledge, and his narrative was so widely read, why did Britain’s reading public latch onto a few seemingly unbelievable details rather than the wealth of valuable information he brought back with him?  After all, it was assumed that all travelers told some tall tales, yet Bruce seems to have received more than his share of scorn.  The answer to this question illustrates the fact that eighteenth-century knowledge was extensively influenced by narrative techniques.  Despite common assumptions that mid-to-late eighteenth-century natural philosophy automatically equated eyewitness accounts with factuality, whether or not such an account was considered trustworthy still depended a great deal on how its story was told.  Samuel Johnson, for one, accused Bruce of not being a “distinct relator,” meaning that Bruce was often more interested in telling a raucous tale of heroic self-aggrandizement than in delivering objective geographical and ethnographical reports.[3]  When Bruce did include specific details, they occasionally seemed too far-fetched to be possible, such as the aforementioned live steak incident, or his claims that Abyssinians ate their beef raw.

The skepticism over Bruce’s description of Abyssinians eating raw beef reveals a second reason why his narrative wasn’t always taken seriously:  it didn’t square with people’s preconceived notions of what Abyssinia was like based on other representations of the region such as Johnson’s Rasselas, translations of Portuguese and French travel narratives, and even stories of Prester John’s land (a Christian country since the fourth century, Abyssinia had been considered a possible location of the legendary Christian kingdom amid the heathens since the Middle Ages).  According to these portraits, Abyssinia was a civilized if foreign nation, not a place where the elite would eat uncooked flesh like “savages,” even though raw beef blended with oils and spices in fact was, and still is, an Ethiopian delicacy.  In fact, the very inconsistency between details that eighteenth-century readers found barbarous and Bruce’s flattering descriptions of his friends in the Abyssinian court was a particular point of contention for one anonymous 1790 reviewer.  He writes,

To a philosopher, the greatest inconsistency of all, is the discordant picture of Abyssinian manners.  That nation is described as barbarous and ignorant in the greatest degree, as totally unacquainted with every country but their own; as liars and drunkards . . . yet, of Mr. Bruce’s Friends, some discover such discernment and force of mind, and some of the women display such delicacy of sentiment and elegance of behaviour, as would do honour to the most civilised nations.[4]

This perceived lack of coherence may have been a significant reason why Bruce’s Travels have largely been cursed to obscurity in spite of their initial popularity—seemingly contradictory stories exist side-by-side both inside the text in terms of Bruce’s descriptions and outside the text in terms of its reception history.  As the above reviewer intimates, it is hard to get a handle on what the narrative—and thus what Abyssinia—is all about because our “philosophical” heritage trains us to equate inconsistency with falsehood.  But this multiplicity is perhaps the most compelling reason for paying attention to the Travels now.

Bruce’s narrative is still the primary source of much of our knowledge today about east Africa during the mid-to-late eighteenth century.  For one, understanding how such knowledge was produced can help us understand its limitations.  Returning to the text, we are reminded that Bruce’s subject position as member of the eighteenth-century British gentry necessarily influenced the way he wrote about the non-European cultures he came in contact with.  As such, proto-colonial discourse and British exceptionalism shaped much of what he saw and wrote about, and paying attention to these aspects reminds us that no knowledge is ever entirely neutral.  Yet, the Travels are not reducible to these limitations—returning to the text can also open up how we think about how such knowledge was gathered.  Take, for example, Bruce’s admitted debt to the women of the Abyssinian court for enabling his mobility both through the court and the kingdom itself. Bruce’s impressions of Abyssinia’s politics and even its geography may be as much a product of their worldviews than they are of his, and his text offers an opportunity to consider how such seemingly marginalized figures in the eighteenth century as African women may have in fact played a significant role in shaping Western knowledge.  He similarly relied on his native guides and Gondar’s Greek and Muslim populations for much of his information not only about the city but also the surrounding countryside, not to mention the scholars, writers, and travelers—European, African, and Arabic—who paved the way for Bruce’s achievements long before he ever set foot on African soil.

In a 2009 TED talk, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of the single story, about the incompleteness that results when we—like the anonymous author from the Monthly Review—seek homogeneity from representations of people and places rather than opening ourselves up to the many narratives that comprise both our pasts and our presents.[5]  While Bruce and his paradoxical narrative may seem just a vestige of the past, from an era when the fields he helped advance—from geography and anthropology to theology and more—had not yet reached their full maturity, revisiting his story can help us reconsider how the production of European knowledge about the world may have in fact been a global affair.  In spite of Bruce’s tendency to characterize himself as a solitary, intrepid traveler standing alone at the head of the Nile, from the Scottish traveler to his English critics, his Continental supporters, and his African friends, Bruce’s narratives bear the marks of the fact that modern knowledge has always been shaped by how multiple stories of the world are told and by the many people who have a hand in their telling.

Further Reading:

J.M. Reid, Traveller Extraordinary:  The Life of James Bruce of Kinnaird.  London:  Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968:  310.

Charles Withers, “Travel and Trust in the Eighteenth Century.”  L’invitation au Voyage:  Studies in Honour of Peter France.  Oxford:  Voltaire Foundation, 2000:  47-54.

Paul Hulton, F. Nigel Hepper, and Ib Friss, Luigi Balugani’s Drawings of African Plants:  From the Collection Made by James Bruce of Kinnaird on his Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile 1767-1773.  New Haven:  Yale Center for British Art, 1991.


[1] As cited by Arthur A. Moorefield, “James Bruce:  Ethnomusicologist or Abyssinian Lyre?”  Journal of the American Musicological Society 28.3 (1975):  503.

[2] James Bruce, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile.  Vol. 1.  London, 1790:  iii.

[3] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson.  London, 1827:  243.

[4] The Monthly Review, from May to August, Inclusive.  Vol. 2.  London, 1790:  188.

[5] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story.”  TED Talks.  Web. 29 Jan. 2015.  <http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.>

Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures

Faculty and students at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg are working on a long-range digital project (Digital Archives and Pacific Cultures) to code and analyze the voyage narratives of eighteenth-century European expeditions to the Pacific, together with the English poetry and print media that responded to the published accounts of Pacific voyages.  We are attempting to study the cross-cultural significance of European voyages in the Pacific and cultural contact experiences in Oceania and Australia, using digital coding and “text-mining” to collect information from very long voyage records in systematic ways through computational methods.

One phase of our work involves preparing digital editions of Pacific voyage publications by Hawkesworth, Cook, and the Forsters in TEI XML (the language of the Text Encoding Initiative) to meet a world standard for accessible and consistently encoded digital texts.  (For more on the Text Encoding Initiative, please see http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml).  Some of the voyage accounts we have prepared for the site have not been freely available online in any searchable form before.  Some are available in proprietary or public databases but have not, to this point, been united in one place.  In addition to preparing editions, we have collected the geographic coordinates recorded in these publications using regular expression matching and autotagging, in order to generate Google Earth & Map views of the voyages.  Our Google Earth projections of Wallis’s and Cook’s voyages offer a clickable interface, so that selecting a compass rose point along the voyage brings up a paragraph or block of text from a voyage record describing events recorded in connection with this place.  Here is an example.

We have also been preparing TEI XML editions of poems, plays, and excerpts from literary and philosophical texts that respond in some way to the Pacific voyage publications.

These texts were located by searching the ECCO and ECCO TCP databases, and we will be adding more material from these resources and the Burney Collection.  Our students have been preparing and marking these files to code specific kinds of cultural interactions so that we can study how English texts represented Pacific encounters and identify the types of interactions which seem to have caught the interest of Atlantic-bound media.  We’ve also provided an interactive clickable interface to “color-code” the poems, highlighting names of people and places as well as the cultural markup our students have applied:  See our edition of Anna Seward’s “Elegy on Captain Cook” (1780).  Please see also our edition of Gerald Fitzgerald’s “The Injured Islanders” (1779), produced just before the news of Cook’s death became known in England.  We offer Fitzgerald’s poem as a significant contrast to the cultural representations in Seward’s work.

The project began and is developing at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus, but the site’s initial development joined a team of faculty and undergraduate students at the Pittsburgh and Greensburg campuses.  As the project continues to develop, it combines classroom teaching of digital humanities research methods together with new research to build a publicly accessible resource.  Our texts and markup and our data visualization experiments are very much a work in progress and are freely available to the public for reading or to download as the basis of new digital projects under a Creative Commons license.  Our site will continue to expand over the next few years as we experiment with topic modelling the Pacific voyage texts and as we develop new maps, search tools, and network graphics, working with new groups of students.


“An Unknown Arc into the Future”: An Interview with Daniel Lewis, Curator of Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery.  ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery. ca. 1768. Oil on canvas. 17 5/8 x 23 1/2 inches (44.8 x 59.7 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Have you ever wanted to look through Galileo’s telescope, compare Hooke’s illustrations in Micrographia to the specimens he depicted, or turn through the pages of Diderot’s Encyclopédie with your own hands?  Or to see a first edition of Vesalius’ On the Fabric of the Human Body, Descartes’ Discourse on Method, and Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, preferably without having to travel from library to library?  Within the Huntington Library’s exhibition, Beautiful Science:  Ideas that Changed the World, these and many more objects are on view and clamor for your attention.  Opening in 2008, the exhibition is beautifully in tune with the recent resurgent interest in Enlightenment and Romantic science, most notably with the success of Richard Holmes’ The Age of WonderI recently visited Beautiful Science for a tour with its curator, Daniel Lewis, as a student of the California Rare Book School.  I later interviewed Lewis about the curatorial choices facing him in developing Beautiful Science and his goals for the exhibition.  Below is an edited version of our emailed conversation.


Beautiful Science grew out of an enormous donation of the “Burndy Library,” 67,000 volumes of books and manuscripts from the Dibner family, which then drove you back to the Huntington’s own history of science collection.  What was the shape of that collection?


The Huntington’s history of science collections, as they existed before the arrival of the Burndy, were substantial.  A small handful of items were on display in the “New Worlds” section of the Main Library Exhibit Hall, but there was nothing like a public history of science exhibit presence before the arrival of the Burndy collection from the Dibner family.  Enlightenment science, however, was certainly of great interest in the research side of things at the Huntington.  We are one of the world’s great repositories for early modern British history, and the history of science, medicine and technology has been an important aspect of scholarly investigations for at least a quarter-century.


There’s a real emphasis in the exhibition on engaging the senses – visitors are invited to look through replica microscopes, reenact experiments with light, and open stoppers to sniff medicinal herbs.  Was there something about the material you were displaying that invited this particular approach?  Was there any resistance to it?


I wanted very much to find a way for visitors to engage in a very low-level tactile fashion with the exhibit — what I call “interactive light.”  I didn’t want people to misunderstand the exhibit to be a science center.  There’s nothing for people to jump up and down on; nothing to throw or no mild electrical shocks to receive.  It’s a library exhibit, above all else, and almost everything in the exhibit is designed to reinforce this.  But that doesn’t mean we didn’t want to engage people with the olfactory, the tactile, and the experiential.


Speaking of the exhibit’s tactile quality, you have on display an original volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which visitors can sit down and page through at their leisure – a truly rare event!  How in the world did that happen?


One of the most common requests I get when doing show-and-tells for visitors and potential donors, is, “Can I touch that?”  The answer is usually no — but I wanted people in an exhibit setting to understand what old paper felt like — its long fibers, its soft, pliable nature, its smell, and any other characteristic that people wanted to investigate (non-destructively!).  So I located an eighteenth century work — old enough to be made from old cotton rags, rather than more modern wood-pulp paper — that was very common.  Diderot’s Encyclopédie was printed in large numbers, and we have three pristine sets — and I thought it an appropriate use for the work to be put on public display.


Do you see Beautiful Science as intervening, or taking a stand, in any particular curatorial or pedagogical disputes?  What do you think the public duty of an institution like the Huntington ought to be in the communication or preservation of ideas?


In some ways, Beautiful Science is a love letter to beauty and science.  It doesn’t particularly critique the very numerous things that science has not done well, or scientific knowledge that has been submerged for various reasons, nor does it make comment on, say, the horrors of modern warfare that science has made possible.  But that kind of critique wasn’t my goal for the exhibit.  The goal really was to show the different ways that science could be beautiful, simply put.  I think if I took any obvious pedagogical stance, it’s that there’s an immediacy to original library materials that can’t be replaced by the digital or the analog facsimile, and that to be in the presence of books is to see the power of big ideas that can be widely distributed over space and time.


You mentioned during my visit that an exhibition catalogue is in the works.  What particular considerations does the catalogue require?


I’ve been creating the catalog as a superset of the exhibit — it has the same major themes and subthemes, but I’ve stretched my legs a bit to show other items in the catalog for which there was no physical room in the brick-and-mortar exhibit.  The catalog will also contain considerably more text.  Books are different creatures than exhibits, as there are no time constraints on a “visit” to a printed catalog in the way there usually are in an exhibit setting.


The exhibition’s rooms each have their own theme: astronomy, light, medicine, and natural history.  If you were to add a fifth room, what area would you pick?  Are there some alchemy and chemistry holdings in the wings?


I’d have a room full of dusty computers.  NOT!  I suppose I’d like to have a section on civil and military engineering — both great strengths of ours.  Applied science is a beautiful thing.


It struck me when I visited that Beautiful Science was remarkably accessible – that it would be equally appealing to school kids, folks seeking shade while wandering the Huntington grounds, and eighteenth-century enthusiasts.  How did you go about striking a balance?


I stared at my computer screen until beads of blood appeared on my forehead.  Writing label text that’s sufficiently brief, not overly self-involved or navel-gazing, accurate, accessible, and reasonably eloquent is a very difficult task.  I’m probably most proud of the text in the exhibit; I conceived and wrote it all myself.


What would you say is the importance of remembering the outmoded ideas on display — the models of the universe we know are incorrect, the animals we know don’t exist (I’m looking at you, manticore)?


I think those things reinforce an idea that I make explicit on my title wall text as you walk into the exhibit:  that we’re on an unknown arc into the future, and that our ideas about the physical world are likely to change, be stood on their head, and then change again.


Are there any particular items that the eighteenth century enthusiasts should be on the lookout for?


Sure, plenty.  I suppose my favorites are the early notions of transmutation or fixity of species — the concept that we live in an evolving natural world was actually more widely considered than people give early natural philosophers credit for.  But you do have to reach further back before that period to get a more modern view, ironically.


A silly question, but if you were to choose a single favorite historical item on display, what would it be?


That’s a tough one, akin to “which of your children do you love the best?”  Three leading candidates:  Gersdorff’s 1517 Fieldbook of Wound Surgery¸for its dramatic and bloody renderings of medical assistance; or Darwin’s 1859 On the Origin of Species, for its world-changing views of nature; or the early nineteenth century French natural history manuscript — untitled — by a trio of French illustrators about whom very little is known.  The illustrations are absolutely breathtaking. 

Daniel Lewis is the Chief Curator of Manuscripts and the Dibner Senior Curator of the History of Science and Technology, at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He is also a Research Associate Professor of History at Claremont Graduate University and a faculty member at the California Rare Book School.


Further Reading: 


Benedict, Barbara.  Curiosity:  A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002.


Blom, Philipp.  Enlightening the World:  Encyclopedia, The Book That Changed the Course of History.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.


Dolnick, Edward.  The Clockwork Universe:  Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World.  New York:  Harper Collins, 2011.


Dugatkin, Lee Alan.  Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose:  Natural History in Early America.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2009.


Hamblyn, Richard.  The Invention of Clouds:  How an Amateur Meteorologist Forged the Language of the Skies.  New York:  Picador, 2001.


Holmes, Richard.  The Age of Wonder.  New York:  Vintage Books, 2008.


Hoskin, Michael.  Discoverers of the Universe:  William and Caroline Herschel.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011.


Jardine, Lisa.  Ingenious Pursuits:  Building the Scientific Revolution.  New York:  Random House, 1999.


Moore, Wendy.  The Knife Man:  Blood, Body Snatching, and the Birth of Modern Surgery.  New York:  Broadway Books, 2005.


Porter, Roy.  The Greatest Benefit to Mankind:  A Medical History of Humanity.  New York:  Norton Books, 1999.


Ridley, Glynis.  The Discovery of Jeanne Baret:  A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York:  Random House, 2010.


Shank, J.B.  The Newton Wars and the Beginning of the French Enlightenment.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2008.


Shapin, Steven and Simon Schaffer.  Leviathan and the Air-Pump:  Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011 [1985].


Stalnaker, Joanna.  The Unfinished Enlightenment:  Description in the Age of the Encyclopedia.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2010.


Stott, Rebecca.  Darwin’s Ghosts:  The Secret History of Evolution.  New York:  Spiegel and Grau, 2012.


Withers, Charles W.J.  Placing the Enlightenment:  Thinking Geographically about the Age of Reason.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007.




“The Good Things Above”: The Commercial Modernity of Vincent Lunardi

John Francis Rigaud, Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon (1785).  Oil on copper.  19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm).  Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  B1981.25.532

John Francis Rigaud, Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon (1785). Oil on copper. 19 x 14 inches (48.3 x 35.6 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. B1981.25.532

In mid-October 1784, two major London newspapers  dedicated the poems that were a regular feature on their final page to a set of comic meditations on a unique fashion trend that had developed shortly after the first-ever human flight in England the month before.  The first, “epigram on some young ladies wearing garters, inscribed with the name of the aspiring Mr. Lunardi,” signed by “W. de W.,” was typical in linking the aerial adventures of Vincent Lunardi, the previously unknown Italian who had woken up famous after ascending in the balloon, to his more earthly attractions:

When Lunardi, unpinion’d, first soar’d to the skies,

Huzza’d by the foolish, admir’d by the wise,

The Ladies all gaz’d with amazement and fear,

And from many bright eyes dropt the pitying tear;

The pitying tear he had when on high,

And from every fair bosom the heart-heaving sigh.

Now, clasping the thigh of each beautiful Miss,

He has soared within sight of the regions of bliss.

Alas!  Should he lose his inflammable air,

The fears would return of each languishing fair,

Who hope he will rise like the Lark or the Dove,

His affections still set on the good things above.

(October 13, 1784, Morning Chronicle)

Figured as both an object of desire and a desiring subject, Lunardi’s inscription on ladies’ garters recast the sublime prospect of aerial views in the parodic terms suggested by the frisson of sexual voyeurism.  Amidst all of the excitement in the weeks following the flight, this was clearly a joke worth overdoing.  A poem which appeared on the same day on the final page of the Morning Post, this one signed by “G. S. C.,” entitled “On Seeing Lunardi’s Name Stamped on a Pair of new Garters, purchased by a Lady,” concluded that however dangerous Lunardi’s travel “upon the air’s uncertain tide”:

I own I envy when I see

Him twin’d about Maria’s knee;

The height of joy is surely this

To have in sight the realms of bliss.

Three days later, another squib in the Morning Post, this one simply entitled “The Garter,” played on the same now-familiar double entendre:

As the high-tow’ring Eagle flies

Majestically through the skies,

So did the brave Italian soar,

Aerial regions to explore:

And when he came

To earth again,

Each British dame,

To crown his fame,

Below her knee, or round her thigh,

His dear enchanting name did tie;

And shew’d the bold advent’rer more

Of Heaven than e’er he saw before.

It is possible to make too much of these sorts of poems, which were only ever intended as the sort of lighthearted humour worthy of the back page of a newspaper, but collectively, they (and the fashion trend itself) dramatized the multiple ways that the rich but often turbulent connections between ideas about science (and more broadly, a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms), commerce, and “the oceanic rumble” of everyday life were mediated by allusions to sexuality as an expression of both the buoyant spirit of innovation and the darker sense of transgression that were central to Britain’s experience of commercial modernity (De Certeau 5).  As John Brewer has argued, efforts to forge a vision of Britain as a polite nation in which commerce was inseparable from emergent forms of sociability were unsettled by “the palpable intrusion of impulses – notably sexual passion and pecuniary greed – which were Rabelaisian and commercial and which undercut the claim that culture [or science] could and should be impartial, disinterested, dispassionate, and virtuous” (341).

If an account of Lunardi’s entrepreneurial efforts offers a history from below of the labyrinth of pressures and opportunities which constituted late eighteenth-century culture, comic references to “the good things above” and the persistent sexualization of ballooning references generally highlights the shaping force of the passions within this social and economic order.  Lunardi was a leading target for these sorts of ironic sexual puns, but this line of humour was also true of a broad range of responses.  An essay in the European Magazine gravely warned that, not only would “every nunnery” be “like a pigeon-house, with ladies like flocks of doves flying to and fro,” a situation which must inevitably lead to various “sad accidents,” but closer to home, “a young lady has nothing to fear from a flight from her chamber-window and back again, if she should not chuse to extend the trip to Scotland” (1785: 7: 84).  The Air Balloon, A New Song linked ballooning, sexual promiscuity, and questions of cultural legitimacy by posing the question, “Should a child begot while they’re up in the sky. . . .  To what parish on earth would the bantling belong?”

Lunardi’s flight might well have been hailed as cause for national celebration, the kind of extraordinary achievement that would enable “Neglected Science” to “raise [. . .] her head again,” as a more laudatory poem in the Morning Post suggested, but these various responses were also a reminder of the unsettling extent to which the hybridizing effects of commerce had blurred the distinctions between these different realms – the world of the mind and the body, enlightenment and fashion, science and sexuality, innovation and transgression (Oct. 1, 1784).  If ballooning seemed to many observers to be a uniquely powerful symbol of Britain’s modernity (Thomas Carlyle would call it the “Emblem of much and of our Age of Hope itself”), these sorts of responses circulated as an equally striking index of the Rabelaisian nature of this social order (42).  Or to put this in slightly different terms, Lunardi’s prominence as a figure of both scientific progress and satirical fun was due in part to the ease with which he could be invoked as a symbol of the discursive ecology that helped to render Britain’s modernity intelligible.  And what may have enabled him to play this role most suggestively of all was the fact that he was foreign.  In an age when the future itself often seemed foreign, Lunardi’s alterity offered an uncanny reminder of the radical ambivalence inspired by the “uncertain tide” of commercial modernity.

For his satirists, the fact that Lunardi was Italian only heightened the tendency to associate him with an irrepressible but potentially wayward sexuality.  Love in a Balloon, which appeared in the Rambler’s Magazine on 1 November 1784, depicted Lunardi aloft embracing a female passenger (figure 1).  “Ah Madame it rises majestically,” Lunardi exclaims.  “I feel it does Signeur,” she answers, while on the ground admiring male spectators exclaim, “Damme he’s no Italian but a man every inch of him.”  Lunardi’s gallantry might infuse his exploits with a romantic rather than a scientific edge, the print suggested, but at least it was England’s women to whom he was attracted.  He was not, it turned out, quite so Italian after all.  This particular pun was not restricted to Lunardi though.  Dent’s British Balloon, and D– Arial Yacht (figure 2), which satirized Jean-Pierre Blanchard’s second ascent in England, at which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Devonshire presided, recycled the same joke.  The Prince, locked in a scandalous aerial embrace with the Duchess, exclaims, “it rises majestically,” to which the Duchess replies, “Yes, I feel it.”  Watching from the ground beside the Duke of Devonshire, who complains of a headache, Lord John Cavendish announces, “His H—., no doubt, being a lover of the Science, will make some curious Experiments.”  Lord Byron may have been creative, but he was hardly original in his comment about the reasons for a love-struck Don Juan’s contemplation of “air-balloons, and the many bars/To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies”:  “If you think ‘twas philosophy that this did,/I can’t help thinking puberty assisted” (1: 92-93).

If satirical cartoonists were predictably attuned to the suggestive connections between ballooning and promiscuity, and more broadly, between the pursuit of knowledge and an endlessly shifting and vaguely defined play of desires (or between philosophy and puberty), their other important insight was the ease with which ballooning could be invoked to comment on a range of other social and political issues.  The inclusion of the Prince and Duchess of Devonshire in Dent’s British Balloon, and D– Arial Yacht reflects this tendency to extrapolate from more straightforward depictions where ballooning featured as an object of sport and ridicule in its own right to satires where it stood in as an icon for political controversies.  Predictably, the primary target was the doomed Fox-North Coalition.  Dent’s The Political Parachute, A Coalition Experiment (figure 3) and E. Dachery’s The Coalition Balloon, 1784 (figure 4), which showed Fox and North being dragged by the neck by ropes hanging from a balloon, both offered complex political commentaries, the gist of which is summed up by Dent’s inscription:  Death Blow to the Hopes.  The Loss of Public Confidence, not restored by misleading the public opinion, and overthrowing the Propositions by gross inconsistency.”  Three other 1784 prints, all by different artists, used balloon images to lampoon George III’s absolutist ambitions.[1]

In some ways, it was precisely this semiotic elasticity – the ease with which ballooning could mean so many different things to different people across a range of contexts – that made it so open to skepticism.  Ballooning’s endless adaptability on a symbolic level reinforced its power to evoke the fluidity of a commercial society generally; its very ubiquity amongst these sorts of satires (many of which played on the idea of ballooning as a “bubble”[2]) made it an easily recognized symbol for all manner of foolish or unstable or disreputable behaviour in a social order where the very concept of value had floated free from its epistemological foundations.

If ballooning was, as Carlyle would suggest, the “emblem” of its age, it was in part because the physicality of the balloons themselves – simultaneously powerful and unguidable, scientifically ambitious and visually luxuriant, monumental and hollow – converged so suggestively with the endless range of incongruous activities, cultural domains, and symbolic registers within which ballooning flourished.  The tensions between these various phenomena resonated with a much broader sense of the problems and possibilities of a highly commodified age in which the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge had become increasingly subject to pressures which unsettled the very idea of what counted as genuine knowledge or legitimate modes of dissemination.  An interest in science, critics often worried, had been eclipsed by a love of spectacle.  If their popularity reduced them to so many “philosophical playthings,” balloons circulated across the range of activities and venues which made up the world of fashionable sociability in ways that unsettled this distinction (Walpole 25: 542).  As the wily Valet de Chambre in John Burgoyune’s The Heiress explained,

Nothing so easy as to bring every

Living creature in this town to the window:  a tame

Bear, or a mad ox; two men, or two dogs fighting;

A balloon in the air – (or tied up to the ceiling ‘tis the

same thing) make but noise enough and out they come.  (10)

None of the anxieties about the cultural “noise” of modern life that haunted the rage for ballooning during its early years – the unnerving overlap between the pursuit of knowledge and a craving for novelty, the impossibility of fostering a polite public culture (even one oriented towards scientific investigation) in ways that managed to keep its distance from the disruptive spectre of popular interest, the convergence between philosophy and puberty or polite sociability and Rabelaisian impulses, and the underlying problem of the hybridizing influence of commerce that ran through all of these concerns – none of these would have been lost on critics in the day.  But neither was the undeniable power of the aspirations which also ran throughout these various elements of the balloonomania.  However exasperating these aspirations might have been to some critics, they remained part of D’Alembert’s “effervescence of minds,” an expression of the age’s interwoven imperatives towards intellectual curiosity and fashionable indulgence, enlightenment and opportunism (qtd. Clark 7).


In recent years, the air ballooning craze of the 1780’s has been celebrated by historians such as Michael Lynn and Richard Holmes as a compelling example of the radical interfusion of those social and intellectual domains whose connections have been obscured by our inherited disciplinary divisions:  between science and what was becoming known as “culture,” the pursuit of knowledge and the transformative power of commerce, politically charged evocations of an emergent public sphere and worries about the turbulent impulses of popular culture, ideologies of polite sociability and the relentless contingencies of fashion.  Lynn’s suggestion that ballooning, with its endless public venues, mass audiences, scientific claims and commercial opportunities, appearances in literary texts, and fashion spin-offs in everything from ladies’ hats to men’s shoe buckles, was “the popular science par excellence,” underscores just how thoroughly ballooning’s ubiquitous appeal circulated across these supposedly distinct social practices, discursive registers, and intellectual domains (Lynn, Popular 12).  It also suggests the impact of endless barely remembered and sometimes only briefly successful cultural producers whose collective impact was a key element in the diffusion of new ideas.  Robert Darnton’s insistence that we need to pay more attention to “the low-life of literature . . . who failed to make it to the top and fell back into Grub Street” applies just as strongly to historians’ growing interest in the “process of commodification and popularization” that science underwent in the eighteenth century “as more and more individuals sought to acquire some knowledge of scientific activities and as more and more people entered public debates on science,” a trend which manifested itself in a proliferation of “shops, fairs, private lecture halls, and other public locations [which] created spaces for scientific appropriation and purchase” (Literary 16; Lynn, Popular 2, 3).  These developments were never unproblematic.  For critics of Britain’s social order, the itinerant showmen who attracted crowds with their dramatic use of air pumps and electrical gadgets were intellectual imposters who draped themselves in the false dignity of scientific instruction in order to hide their lack of any rational purposefulness.  “Electricity happens at present to be the puppet-show of the English,” Charles Moritz declared after his 1782 journey, “Who ever at all understands electricity, is sure of being noticed and successful” (88).  But in recent years, historians of science such as Jan Golinski, Larry Stewart, and Lynn have offered a more generous version of the popularizing efforts of a group of “middling savants” who were dedicated to gaining an audience for these topics, and of the nature of the audience who flocked to see them (Lynn, Popular 3).[3]  As Golinski has argued, these more recent approaches have been less focused on the Enlightenment as a grand narrative or distinct realm of ideas than on the many “little enlightenments” which characterized the transmission and reception of scientific ideas (Clark 27).

For Richard Holmes, whose book The Age of Wonder is adorned by a striking illustration of one of the Montgolfier brothers’ balloons, the ballooning craze was evidence of his broader argument that we are mistaken in assuming, as we have often done, that the Romantic period was characterized by a sense of the separation and even mutual animosity between the realms of literary and scientific thought.  For Holmes, this period was animated by a “scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,” an argument which runs directly against the grain of our own inherited characterizations of “Romanticism as a cultural force [which was] intensely hostile to science” (xv).  Far from experiencing these as mutually exclusive and often hostile ways of seeing and being in the world, people living in this age viewed the world around them in ways that were nurtured by their interconnections.  Most fundamentally, Holmes argues, they were united by a shared sense of “wonder” or almost reverential curiosity for the world around them (xvi).

These accounts of the late eighteenth century have been especially important because of the extent to which they anticipate the increasingly relational focus of our approaches to cultural history generally.  In both our theoretical discussions and our critical practice, we have tended to emphasize the crucial formative influence of connections between various relations of cultural production and consumption (authors and readers, artists and viewers, performers and audiences), between the material realities and specific institutional contexts of these relations and the forms of symbolic capital which energized them, between the stubborn physical realities of books and other cultural objects and their endless signifying potential, between the scientific aspirations that we associate with Enlightenment thinkers and the bustling commercial world in which they were rooted, between aesthetic ideologies of creativity and more worldly forms of entrepreneurial ingenuity, and across different literary and visual forms.  Our emphasis has been on both the highly mediated nature of these relations and on the two-way flow of this traffic of influences:  the integral role of audiences in shaping ideas of cultural worth, not after the fact but as a crucial element in the productive process.

The risk in emphasizing the formative influence of these connections, however, is the tendency to reinscribe our accounts of them within a Whiggish narrative of social progress that implicitly valorizes the mutually nurturing force of these relations without adequately registering the influence of the anxieties that they also aroused.  Descriptions of the “balloon influenza,” the “air balloon fever,” the “present rage,” the balloonomania,” and “the aerial phrenzy,” implied suspicions that the extremity of the public’s response reflected the unhealthy nature of modern nations’ vulnerability to excesses that were also part of commercial modernity (MP October 19, 1784; MP September 11, 1784; Seward 11; Walpole 25: 596; London Unmask’d 137).  My argument is not with Holmes’ struggle to free us from the distortions of the historically anomalous disciplinary bounds that we have too often imposed on the past, especially in our understanding of the relations between what would become known as science and culture, or with his even more important hope that “with any luck we have not quite outgrown” this age of wonder, both of which are important and convincing interventions (xvi).  But there is a danger that in making the case for this convergence we align ourselves with a progressivist model that underestimates the intensity of the anxieties which also attended these questions, and which saturated debates about both science and literature, as well as their intersections.

Ironically, given Holmes’ title, throughout the eighteenth century these tensions manifested themselves in strikingly acute ways in the word “wonder.”  In Rambler No. 137, Samuel Johnson dismissed “wonder” as an “effect of ignorance. . . .  Wonder is a pause of reason, a sudden cessation of the mental progress” (3: 72).  For many eighteenth-century critics, the very word “wonder” seemed to smack of all that was most dubious about the commodification of knowledge.  Pamphlets such as The Age of Wonders:  or, a farther and particular Discriptton [sic] of the remarkable, and Fiery Appartion [sic] that was seen in the air, on Thursday in the Morning, being May the 11th 1710.  Also the Figure of a Man in the Clouds with a drawn Sword; which pass’d from the North West over towards France, with reasonable Signification thereon (1710) played on an occult fascination with supernatural mysteries that flew in the face of any rational spirit of critical inquiry.  Jonathan Swift reacted to plans to establish a national bank of Ireland in the wake of the South Sea crisis with a series of pamphlets including two entitled The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders.  Being an Accurate Description of the Birth, Education, Manner of Living, Religion, Politicks, learning, &c. of Mine A—-se (1722) and The Wonder of all the Wonders, that ever the World Wondered (1722).  The controversial overtones associated with an appeal to the public’s love of wonder gained an increasingly satirical edge in the years just prior to Lunardi’s flight when it became associated with the notorious scientific lecturer or (many critics insisted) charlatan, Gustavus Katterfelto, who had himself enjoyed brief but intense popularity in the early 1780s, whose seemingly endless newspapers ads promised, “WONDERS WONDERS, WONDERS AND WONDERS.”[4]  In “The Grand Consultation,” George Canning mocked “That wonderful wonder, the great Katterfelto!”:  “To see how great must be the rage,/ The wonders of this wond’rous age!”  It was, as London Unmask’d put it, a “world of wonders” in which “novelty never ceases,” a “wonder-working age, in which invention seems to be on the rack to produce such curiosities as surpass whatever have gone before” (46, 135).  It may well have been the age of wonder, but in a far less dignified or purposeful sense than Holmes’ argument implies.  As Brewer and Roy Porter have argued, “one of the historical tasks of what we may loosely call the Enlightenment was to forge new sets of moral values, new models of man, to match and make sense of the opportunities and obligations, the delights and dangers, created by the brave new world of goods” (5).  If ballooning was “the popular science par excellence,” it was also a vivid example of both the challenges and the potential responses that were a central part of this task (Lynn, Popular 12).


Whatever they thought of ballooning, no one doubted its impact.  “Balloons occupy senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody,” Horace Walpole proclaimed (25: 449).  “It is fashionable to speak of balloons,” the Morning Post agreed.  “My Lord speaks of balloons – my lady speaks of balloons – Tommy the footman, and Betty the cook speak of balloons – yea, and balloons shall be spoke of.  The sprightly Miss talks of nothing but inflammable air” (September 30, 1784).  “The term balloon is not only in the mouth of every one, but all our world seems to be in the clouds,” declared a 1785 book titled London Unmask’d (137).  Lunardi’s flight, on September 15, 1784, attracted an estimated 150,000 spectators, “the windows and roofs of the surrounding houses[,] scaffoldings of various forms and contrivances . . . crouded with well dressed people” (Lunardi, Account 26-27 [incorrectly numbered 34-35]).  The Post reported that “St. Paul’s Cathedral took the advantage of Lunardi’s Balloon excursion, by raising the price, which used to be only twopence for going to the top, to two shillings, and both the galleries had a great number of spectators, many of whom in the stone gallery fell down the recesses and broke their shins, as they were walking round and gazing at the Balloon” (Sept. 23, 1784).  The flights themselves were doubled by elaborate indoor displays, such as the spectacle that Betsy Sheridan witnessed when she  visited the Pantheon to see Lunardi’s balloon during a trip to London in October 1784.  There she saw Lunardi’s balloon “suspended to the Top of the Dome,” carrying “Lunardi, and his poor fellow travelers the Dog and Cat” who had accompanied him and “who still remained in the Gallery to receive the visits of the curious” (24).  “The Pantheon seems to have become the fashionable lounging place for all the beauties in town,” the Post noted the same month as Sheridan’s visit.  “The attractions are considerable:  The magnificence of the building, the suspension of the Balloon and Gallery, and tho’ the last, yet seemingly not the least in admiration, Lunardi’s paying his respects to the chearful crowd for their friendly attention” (October 3, 1784).

The enthusiasm for ballooning had extended from science to show-business and in England, no one rivalled Lunardi, either in the extraordinary public response which his flights aroused, or, closer to the ground, in the skill with which he manipulated the narratives of these achievements in order to maintain the public’s interest.  An article in the September 16th  edition of the Morning Post (which Lunardi included in his swiftly published account of the flight), insisted that

every Englishman should feel an emulation to reward him; for uncertain as the good to be derived from such an excursion may be thought, yet it becomes the nobleness of our nature to encourage them.  Discoveries beyond the reach of human comprehension at present, may by perseverance be accomplished.  Emulation and industry are a debt which is due to posterity, and he who shrinks from innovation is not his country’s friend.  (46)

A column the following day echoed this sentiment.  “Wednesday the sublime, and bold flight of Lunardi, engrossed the whole of every conversation, not only in the metropolis, but its environs, at a considerable distance” (MP Sept. 17, 1784, p. 3).  Weeks after the fight, Lunardi attended the theatre “with a party of Ladies, apparently vying with each other in shewing him attention and respect . . .  the House in general hailed his appearance with a continued tumult of applause” (MP October 8, 1784).[5]  His fame inspired everything from a new style of hat dubbed “the Lunardi” to a new shade of fabric named “Lunardi maroon,” but his greatest achievement may ultimately have been the seamlessness with which he fused these aspects of his career, as an aeronaut and an author who complemented his flights with rapidly published accounts, a self-styled Enlightenment hero advancing the boundaries of knowledge and a tireless self-promoter, a figure of ostentatious sensibility and a clever marketer, on display in his balloon in the Pantheon “paying his respects to the crowd.”

Nor was Lunardi reticent about the scale of the public’s interest.  As his flight passed overhead, Lunardi noted in his An Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, the King and Prime Minister interrupted a meeting with other “great officers of state” to watch the air balloon’s progress through telescopes (40).  Their willingness to suspend the serious business of government in order to witness the most dramatic event of the day was understandable, Lunardi suggested.  Elsewhere in London, a jury which had been reflecting on the case of “a criminal whom after the utmost allowance for some favourable circumstances, they must have condemned,” had  “acquitted the criminal immediately” when the balloon appeared, in order that they might be free to watch (39).  So great was the interest of the spectators, Lunardi recounted, “that the things I threw down were divided and preserved, as our people would relicks of the most celebrated saints” (39).  Another publication recorded that a woman who recovered one of the dropped items only to have it “seized and torn to pieces by the populace,” declared “with streaming eyes and wringing hands . . . that the loss of her husband or one of her children would scarcely have given her more affliction” (Mr. Lunardi’s 10).  The September 17th Morning Post reported that “Mrs. Saunders, widow of an upholsterer of that name, who formerly lived in Goodge-Street, was so terrified at the downfal of his oar, which she took for a human body, that she was suddenly taken ill, and in spite of all medical assistance, expired early yesterday morning.”[6]  Lest Mrs. Saunders’ death be thought to tarnish his achievement, Lunardi hastened to add that he had been counseled by a Judge “not to be concerned at the involuntary loss I had occasioned; that I had certainly saved the life of a young man” (the criminal who had escaped almost certain conviction when the jury caught sight of the balloon) “who might possibly be reformed, and be to the public a compensation for the death of the lady” (39).

Lunardi’s advertisements for his display at the Pantheon, which appeared daily in leading newspapers such as the Morning Post and the Morning Chronicle alongside ads for competing flights and balloon-exhibits, books, hastily-assembled plays featuring ballooning references, and offers from balloon-makers (a favourite sideline of umbrella makers), exploited the full range of advertisers’ rhetorical strategies and special features.[7]  Portraying himself as an Enlightenment man of feeling moved by the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings in an ad for his balloon exhibit at the Pantheon, Lunardi insisted that “he would think himself deficient in every sentiment of gratitude, were he not, from the effusion and overflow of his feelings, to pour forth his thanks in the warmest manner” by providing people with the opportunity to attend his display at the Pantheon (MP November 24, 1784).  “Mr. Lunardi is peculiarly happy in having lately experienced, that the attachment of the Public to him is in unison with his feelings and particularity to this Nation,” another ad for his exhibit at the Pantheon proclaimed (MP May 5, 1785).  This emotional reciprocity between an Enlightenment man of feeling and the nation which had embraced him, which found its clearest affirmation in the steady flow of paying customers to his exhibit, was a persistent theme.  Insisting that “Mr. Lunardi has nothing more at heart than to gratify the public curiosity in the most ample and satisfactory manner, and that to disappoint the general expectation in the smallest particular, would be inexpressibly repugnant to the sincere and grateful feelings he entertains of their past favours,” yet another ad hastened to deny rumours of an imminent flight, and to announce that his exhibit at the Pantheon would remain open, having “spared no pains or cost to render it elegant and magnificent to the eye, and to blend in the numerous parts of his machinery, the ornamental with the useful” (MP March 26, 1785).  Adopting a tone of patrician benevolence, a series of ads promised that he would not be distracted by the “encreasing degree of favour and encouragement” he was receiving “from a generous public” from forgetting “the feelings of humanity, but would as much as possible be instrumental to the relief of indigence and distress,” proof of which was his plan to open the Pantheon on the following Thursday evening “for the purpose of raising a charitable Fund, to be distributed among necessitous Persons, and Families whose situations have been properly certified and authenticated” (MP November 13, 1784).

However much he may have presented the exhibit at the Pantheon in terms which reinforced his scientific credentials, it was also distinguished by the pressures of fashionable sociability.  Having stressed his gratitude “to a generous and intelligent people, to whom he is bound by obligations which he never can forget, to the latest hour of his life,” Lunardi announced that he would mark the imminent closure of his balloon exhibit at the Pantheon (in order to prepare for another flight) with a grand final night combining “his Exhibition” with

a ball on the said night, at which nothing shall be wanting to render it elegant, brilliant, and accommodating.  In addition to the lights of the lustres, part of the Dome will be illuminated.  The best Bands of Music that can be acquired for Minuets, Cotillons, and Country Dances, and every other particular that can tend to the entertainment or gratification of the company, shall be provided and attended to, under the management of two Gentlemen who have taken upon themselves to regulate the ceremony of the night with due and proper decorum.  (MP November 24, 1784)

A masquerade at the Pantheon three months later was similarly “elegantly illuminated and embellished with the appendage of Lunardi’s balloon” (MP February 9, 1785).  Yet another masquerade four months later combined decorations “representing the Grand Saloon of the Doge of Venice, decorated and ornamented in the most elegant taste” with “the balloon, [which] will likewise be suspended, with the Gallery and the whole of the apparatus” (MP June 6, 1785).  Other ads promised the combined attraction of the balloon with “the musical child,” a prodigy who “will perform from Two o’Clock till Four, and though but Nine Years of Age, will take off several of our first Performers, and will Sing and Play at sight” (MP April 21, 1785).

Lunardi’s published descriptions of his various flights reinforced this orientation to the world of fashionable sociability by portraying himself as a man driven far more by his own unique brand of emotional intensity rather than by a spirit of rational inquiry.  Even when “tottering on the brink of a total disappointment, I would not relinquish sensibility for the empire of the world!,” Lunardi insisted in his account of his frustrations when a subsequent flight was delayed:  “Without sensibility, fame, riches, glory were empty sounds!” (Five 23).  Adopting an intimate tone licensed by the epistolary format of his Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, which was structured as a series of letters to his “Guardian” and “best and dearest friend” (1784), Lunardi dwelt upon “the extremes of elevation and dejection” which had marked his struggles to become Britain’s first aeronaut.  “I am at this moment overwhelmed with anxiety, vexation and despair,” he confided after learning that a competitor, “a Frenchman, whose name was Moret,” was determined to beat him in his quest to perform the first flight in Britain.  A conflict with the manager of the Lyceum, where he had been exhibiting the balloon, left him with a deep sense of “fatigue, agitation of mind, and that kind of shame which attends a breach of promise, however involuntary” (24).[8]  In a letter written on the eve of his flight, his competitor Moret having failed and the obstacles which threatened his plan surmounted, Lunardi wrote:  “Behold me, – I was going to say – but I should be extremely sorry you were to see me, exhausted with fatigue, anxiety and distress, at the eve of an undertaking that requires my being collected, cool, and easy in mind” (25).

Having triumphed over adversity, Lunardi’s comments on the voyage dwelt more on his emotional resurrection than on the flight itself:  “All my affections were alive, in a manner not easily to be conceived; and you may be assured that the sentiment which seemed to me most congenial to that happy situation was gratitude and friendship.  I will not refer to any softer passion” (34).  The letters which covered his journey depicted him drinking a bottle of wine and eating chicken; caring for his fellow passengers, the cat and dog whom tens of thousands would view on display in the balloon in the Pantheon; and writing “dispatches from the clouds” (36), “pinning them to a napkin” and “commit[ting] them to the mild winds of the region, to be conveyed to my honoured friend and patron, Prince Caramancio” (34).[9]  Not all of his missives would have descended so lightly.  Having “emptied [his bottle of wine] to the health of my friends and benefactors in the lower world” (34), he “likewise threw down the plates, knives and forks, the little sand that remained, and [the] empty bottle, which took some time in disappearing. I now wrote the last of my dispatches from the clouds, which I fixed to a leathern belt, and sent towards the earth” (36).[10]

Mr. Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool, On Tuesday the 9th of August, 1785, offered an even more melodramatic version of this narrative of the trials and ultimate triumph of a man of feeling.  Written as two letters, composed before and after his flight, Lunardi bared his soul about the hardship of having to wait for a change in the weather.  Afflicted with “the most poignant Distress” at “the full Wretchedness of my Situation,” he waited “like a prisoner, who, expecting his Deliverance, anxiously counts the Moments till the happy Hour arrives, destin’d to restore him Nature’s first, best, Gift, Freedom!” (9).  It was, he admitted, a desperate predicament, but perhaps one that all heroes must ultimately struggle with:

Sleep flies to the humble Cottage, and seals the Eye-Lids of the unambitious Peasant; on his Straw-Bed he slumbers happy, without a Care to break his Repose!  what an enviable Condition!  yet my Soul was never form’d to enjoy it:  often have I said I will seek Peace in Retirement; but the glittering Phantom Glory, has darted across my Path, and I have pursued it as eagerly as ever!  It is a false Light, an Ignis fatuus, that leads me into many a melancholy Situation:  and yet perhaps To-morrow’s Dawn will see me following it with redoubled Ardor.  (13)

Fortunately for Lunardi, his suffering was to be relieved.  Improved weather conditions having enabled him to undertake his promised flight, his second letter depicted “such quick Transitions of Grief Rage, and Joy as have quite shook my Frame:  I have been in a most horrid Situation!  but, thank God, it is now over; and the Ladies and Gentlemen of Liverpool flatter me that I have given sufficient Proofs of Courage” (18).  Refining on his previous self-image as a prisoner, Lunardi likened his reversal of fortune to “a Pleasure equal to that of a condemned malefactor who is reprieved at the Place of Execution!” (18).  His Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gerardo Compagni (1786)  repeated this now familiar narrative of abyssal despair, “surrounded as I am with distress and perplexities, and tottering on the brink of a total disappointment,” succeeded by ecstatic triumph (23).  Far from attempting to maintain the rational poise that one might associate with a man of science, Lunardi emphasized his own “flighty” nature (10).  If satirists revelled in the sexual overtones of Lunardi’s fame, this may have been in part an extension of Lunardi’s equally persistent description of himself as a man of extreme sensibility.

This penchant for emotional revelation, which dwelt on his inner turmoil as a melodramatic spectacle in its own right, was never easily separated from a more calculating sense of commercial opportunism.  However noble the motivations driving Lunardi’s search for funding may have been, science, sensibility – his own as well as his spectators – and commerce had become closely entwined in his ongoing aeronautical career.  Fusing a display of feelings (“the full Sensations of my Soul”) with entrepreneurial flare, Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool depicted himself drinking wine (though he was unable to eat, “so much was I affected by the Agitation of my Spirits a few moments before my ascension”) and sending off letters to those below (22).  This time his letters were more carefully crafted “Proposals” entitled “A CARD from the SKIES,” a copy of which he included in his Account.  In it, he

presents his best Compliments to his Terrestrial Friends; and begs leave to inform them, that, fired by Emulation and the love of Glory, and delighted with the Scenes upon which he now looks down, he wilt enlarge his BALLOON, and make an ærial Voyage, from Liverpool to the Isle of Man, provided the Ladies and Gentlemen will raise a Subscription sufficient to defray the expences of such a Journey, (150l.) before Friday next.  (23)

For Lunardi, the commercial aspect of these endeavours was simply an English fact of life, “where the diffusion of wealth through the lowest ranks renders the whole nation the general patron of useful designs” (Account 7).  His exhibits at the Lyceum and then the Pantheon could bring no disgrace to his endeavours since these would only be adding to “the innumerable exhibitions, which are always open in London, and which are the means of circulation, convenience, information and utility,” including the Royal Academy where “the first artists in the nation, under the immediate protection of the King, and incorporated into an academy, exhibit their pictures yearly” for an admission price of one shilling (Account 6).

Lunardi’s popularity, however, was as brief as it had been intense.  By January 1786, The European Magazine could already refer to “the then fashionable rage for ballooning” two years earlier (13: 7).  Lunardi, sensing that the winds of public interest had shifted, had already moved on.  The July 1787 European noted Lunardi’s “experiment of his new invention for preserving persons from drowning.  He launched himself in at Westminster Bridge, and passed down the river, through Black-friars, and also London bridge, at nearly the time of low-water” (1787: 12:77).  Few people in the age were more adept at understanding and manipulating these connections between commerce, science, and fashionable sociability, but as the brevity of his fame also suggests, few careers better demonstrate the vexed nature of these shifting relations.  For his critics, it was a happy irony that Lunardi should have made his first ascent from the Artillery Ground, adjacent to Bethlehem Hospital, or Bedlam as it was better known.  “The figures of Phrenzy and Melancholy at [Bedlam’s] gate are celebrated throughout Europe,” Lunardi mused, “Which of these allegorical beings the people have assigned as my patron, I have not learned” (Account 27).  The lesson of Britain’s commercial modernity, and of ballooning itself, was that it could be hard to distinguish.


Figure 1:  Love in a Balloon.  Engraving, from the Rambler’s Magazine, 1784.

Figure 2:  British Balloon, and D– [Devonshire] Arial Yacht.  Engraving, by W. Dent, 1784.

Figure 3:  The Political Parachute, A Coalition Experiment.  Engraving, by W. Dent, 1785.

Figure 4:  The Coalition Balloon, 1784.  Engraving, published by E. Dachery, 1784.


[1] Rowlandson’s A Peep into Friar Bacon’s Study (1784), Colling’s The Golden Image that Nebuchadnezzar The King had set up (1784), and W. Humphrey’s Solomon in the Clouds!! (1784).

[2] See, for instance,  prints such Elizabeth Henrietta Phelps’ Stock Exchange (1785) and Dent’s 1791 print, Bank Transfer, or, A New Way of Supporting Public Credit.

[3] See, for instance, Jan Golinski, Science as Public Culture:  Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992), Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science:  Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992), and William Clark, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer, eds., The Sciences in Enlightened Europe (Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1999).

[4] For an account of Katterfelto’s career, see Barbara Benedict, Curiosity:  A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry, 210-215.  Benedict aligns Katterfelto with both performing animals and the rage for air ballooning as instances of the contested state of modern knowledge.  See also Richard Altick, The Shows of London, 84-85; Fiona Haslem, From Hogarth to Rowlandson:  Medicine in Art in Eighteenth-Century Britain, 202-214;  Eric Jameson, The Natural History of Quackery; and Henry Sampson, A History of Advertising from the Earliest Times, 403-405.

[5] A series of at least twelve watercolour paintings by George Woodward, several of which depicted Lunardi’s various ascents, conveyed the visual magnificence as well as the heroic aura of the early flights.  These can be viewed on-line at the Debryshire County Council website.  My thanks to John Barrell for this source.

[6] Describing the loss of the oar (a common piece of equipment in early balloons) in his Account, Lunardi similarly reported that “a gentlewoman, mistaking the oar for my person, was so affected with my supposed destruction, that she died in a few minutes” (39).

[7] For advertising in this period, see John Strachan, Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2008); Nicholas Mason, Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming); and Paul Keen, Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800 (Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2012), Chapter 6.

[8] Eager to negotiate a more profitable arrangement for himself after more than 20,000 people had flocked to see the balloon, the Lyceum’s manager had locked the balloon up until Lunardi agreed to pay a better share of the profits than they had previously arranged.  Lunardi eventually recovered the balloon with the assistance of the police.

[9] An ACCOUNT of MR. CROSBIE’s ATTEMPT to CROSS the CHANNEL in a BALLOON from DUBLIN, JULY 19, 1785, offered a strikingly similar account of aerial travel:  “My mind, that was hitherto voluptuously fed, made me inattentive to the cravings of my appetite, which at length grew rather pressing, and, with my pen in one hand, and part of a fowl in the other, I wrote as I enjoyed my delicious repast” (qtd. European 1785: 8: 133).

[10] Sending down communications was a favourite pastime of balloonists.  In his account of a flight from London on 16 October, 1784, Jean-Pierre Blanchard recorded sending a letter “to a friend in London” by means of a pigeon which he took with him:  “The bird flew away; and, after making some turns in the air, appeared to fly towards the capital, where indeed she arrived with my letter the same evening” (17).

Works Cited

The Age of Wonders:  Or, a Farther and Particular Discriptton [Sic] of the Remarkable, and Fiery Appartion [Sic] That Was Seen in the Air, on Thursday May the 11th 1710. Also the Figure of a Man in the Clouds with a Drawn Sword; which pass’d from the North West over towards France, with reasonable Signification thereon.  London:  Printed by J. Read, 1710.

The Air Balloon, A New Song.  London, 1785.

Bockett, Elias.  All the Wonders of the World Out-Wonderd [sic]:  In the Amazing and Incredible Prophecies of Ferdinando Albumazarides.  London, 1722.

Byron, George Gordon, Lord.  Don Juan.  Austin:  U of Texas P, 1957.

Canning, George.  “The Grand Consultation.”

Clark, William, Jan Golinksi, and Simon Schaffer, eds.  The Sciences in Enlightened Europe.  Chicago:  U of Chicago P, 1999.

De Certeau, Michel.  The Practice of Everyday Life.  Trans Steven Rendall.  Berkeley:  U of California P, 1984.

Golinski, Jan.  Science as Public Culture:  Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain, 1760-1820.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 1992.

Holmes, Richard.  The Age of Wonder:  How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.  London:  Harper Press, 2009.

Keen, Paul.  “The ‘Balloonomania’:  Science and Spectacle in 1780s England.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.4 (2006):  507-535.

—.  Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800.  Cambridge UP, 2012.

London Unmask’d:  Or the New Town Spy.  Exhibiting a Striking Picture of the World as it Goes.  London:  William Allard, 1785.

Lunardi’s Grand Aerostatic Voyage Through the Air.  London:  Printed for J. Bew, J, Murray and Richardson and Urquhart, and R. Ryan, 1784.

Lunardi, Vincent.  An Account of the First Aërial Voyage in England, in a series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gherardo Compagni.  London:  Printed for the author and sold at the Pantheon; also by the publisher, J. Bell; and at Mr. Molini’s, 1784.

—.  An Account of Five Aerial Voyages in Scotland, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gerardo Compagni, Written Under the Impression of the Various Events that Affected the Undertaking.  London:  Printed for the authors and sold by J. Bell, Bookseller to his Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, and J. Creech, Edinburgh, 1786.

—.  Mr. Lunardi’s Account of his Second Aerial Voyage from Liverpool, On Tuesday the 9th of August, 1785.  London, 1785.

Lynn, Michael R.  Popular Science and Public Opinion in Eighteenth-century France.  Manchester, UK ; New York:  Manchester UP, 2006.

—. The Sublime Invention:  Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820.  London:  Pickering & Chatto, 2010.

Mason, Nicholas.  Literary Advertising and the Shaping of British Romanticism.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, forthcoming.

Stewart, Larry.  The Rise of Public Science:  Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain, 1660-1750.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.

Strachan, John.  Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2008.

Swift, Jonathan.  The Wonderful Wonder of Wonders.  Being an Accurate Description of the Birth, Education, Manner of Living, Religion, Politicks, learning, &c. of Mine A—-se.  London, 1722.

—.  The Wonder of all the Wonders, that ever the World Wondered.  London, 1722.

Walpole, Horace.  The Correspondence of Horace Walpole.  Ed. W. S. Lewis.  London:  Oxford UP, 1961-83.

Diagrams of Emotion: Hogarth’s Blush and Maori Tattoos

Thomas Willis (1621-1675) thought there were two equal and opposite impulses at work when a person blushed, a modest retreat and an aggressive advance. In his book on mimicry, Dazzled and Deceived (2009), Peter Forbes has argued that all systems of natural mimicry, whether functioning as camouflage or warning, follow the same basic pattern of modest retreat and obtrusive truculence.  Using the pictorial tools of analysis offered by William Hogarth, I discuss the relation of blushing to tattooing by comparing Sidney Parkinson‘s drawings of tattooed Maori heads (1773) first with Hogarth’s diagram of a blush, and finally with Titian’s Diana and Actaeon, hoping to suggest with a reasonable amount of plausibility that these all belong to the patterns of mimicry discussed by Forbes.

In one of the most testing passages of Hogarth’s The Analysis of Beauty (1753) he attempts a theory of three-dimensional viewing by asking us to suppose a hollow sphere.  He invites the reader to imagine that the sphere is observed from two positions, from the outside where the surface appears convex, and from the inner where it will seem concave.  By having an eye placed at some distance from the object and the other sitting at the centre of it we shall obtain, he promises, “the true and full idea of what is called the outlines of a figure.”  If we habituate ourselves to this combination of a real and imagined position vis-a-vis the things we presently see, he promises we “will gradually arrive the knack of recalling them . . . when the objects themselves are not before [us],” so that not just spheres, cubes and pyramids but even the most subtle or irregular shapes will be as present to the fancy as if they were still in front of us (Hogarth 1810:  44-5).  In staking this claim Hogarth flies in the face of one of the central tenets of empiricism, namely that an object and our impression or idea of it are entirely different.  Thomas Reid was adamant about the “unphilosophical fiction of images in the brain” because it was axiomatic with him that “no sensation can resemble any external object” (Reid 1997: 121, 176).  His conclusion concerning what he calls the “geometry of visibles” is precisely the opposite of Hogarth’s:  “The geometrician, while he looks at his diagram, and demonstrates a proposition, hath a figure present to his eye, which is only a sign and representative of a tangible figure . . . and that these two figures of have different properties, so that what he demonstrates of the one, is not true of the other” (Reid 1997: 105-6).   The imagined position of the eye at the centre of a scooped out egg, for example, is a figment adding nothing to our visual knowledge of the whole shape.

I labour this point because it is important for two reasons, first because it illustrates a significant difference between the sensationism of empiricists such as Hobbes, Locke, and Reid, and the Epicureanism of thinkers such as Walter Charleton and Thomas Stanley in the seventeenth century and David Hartley and Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth who believed, like Hogarth, that there was an immediate and intimate relation between the impression of a thing and the idea we have of it.  Like Lucretius, their chief source of Epicurean materialism, these philosophers believed that there was no firewall protecting the mind or soul from the bombardment of the senses by light and sound.  Indeed, Lucretius believed that every sensation arose from the print made by traces of the actual object, whether it was its film or effigy lodging in the eye, its effluvia entering the nose, or its reverberations penetrating the ear.  The idea of a thing was therefore continuous with its material reality, it was not a sign or a symbol fashioned by the mind.   Lucretius believed that sight, for instance, was something like a motion picture, with a succession of images emitted at great speed from the object striking the retina to give us not the illusion of shape, colour and motion but the immediate print of it (Lucretius 2006, 279-97; iv, ll. 26-268).

Figure 1: from The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth

Figure 1: from The Analysis of Beauty by William Hogarth

The second important reason for emphasising these rival epistemologies is that it gives us some sense of what is at stake when in the Analysis Hogarth arrives at the topic of light and colour, and begins to consider how they affect his three-dimensional approach to volume and depth.   Pre-eminent in the artist’s palette, he says, is flesh-colour, which in portraiture moves between the extremes of black and white via the bluish tints around the temple and the rosy flush on healthy cheeks and lips.  It is here that he tackles the nature of the blush, making an extraordinary attempt at a diagram with a black and white line drawing (Figure 1).  Now there are three points I want make about this image.  The first and simplest is that it attempts to circumvent the limitations of copperplate by treating it as if it were an acquatint, using shading to suggest variations in colour.  Second, since there is no possibility of suggesting a blush on a woman’s cheek by means of cross-hatching without making it look like a bruise, Hogarth presents his blush as if it were a photographic negative, reversing the values of black and white so that a very faint thinning of the ink over the cheek can suggest the blush, while the whiteness of the lips stand for red.  Thus he exploits (he says) the natural gullibility of the eye, an organ easily imposed upon and which, if it were not controlled, would show us things double and upside down (177).  Third, he is adapting his technique of 3D inside/outside vision not for a sphere or an egg but for the face.  He has told us that the skin is composed of two envelopes.  There is the outer cuticle that is as transparent as isinglass, and “would show the fat, lean and all the blood-vessels, just as they lie under it” (187) if it were not for the inner cutis which, although it is opaque, is constituted of fibres whose coloured juices and meshes determine the individual complexion.  In some young women, he says, “the texture is so fine . . . that they redden, or turn pale, on the least occasion” (188).   Somehow Hogarth has managed in this diagram of a face to install an inner eye, capable of locating a lightening of the concave interior of uniform blood-red just in those places where, on the convex outside, red would be most on display against the surrounding white.

We call this a diagram, but it is not the sort of structure Reid is thinking of in his geometry of visibles, because instead of establishing a decisive difference between the thing itself and the formal outline that represents it, it is doing the opposite by insisting, perhaps rather awkwardly, on their coincidence.   In some important respects this kind of diagrammatic experiment conforms to the insights about Hogarth’s art which John Bender began to analyse in his essay “Matters of Fact: Virtual Witnessing and the Public in Hogarth’s Narratives” when he talked about his facticity as a kind of staged realism.   Far from schematising the relation between the spectator and the object, this staging (Bender argued) restores the possibility of a first encounter’s immediacy–perhaps beyond the zone of comfort, for he quotes Jean Rouquet to the effect that Hogarth’s vision “corresponds too closely to the objects it represents” (Bender 2012: 59; Rouquet 1746: 2).  In his recent book The Culture of Diagram, Bender and his co-author Michael Marrinan study this proximity of vision to object by turning to the function of correlation that the non-perspectival organisation of diagram encourages.  By dividing the sight-lines up between different points, the artist makes it possible for the viewer to assemble the different parts in a new configuration, and in effect to initiate a cognitive event (Bender and Marrinan 2010: 74).  They single out Hogarth’s “Satire on False Perspective” as an exemplary lesson in diagrammatic correlation because of its overlay of `fractional visual fields’ that challenge the assumptions of one-point perspective by situating in the eye in a grid of rival viewing positions.

Such a challenge is not just practical or technical; it is also affective.  Bender and Marrinan write, “Hogarth’s humour erupts at the juncture where the fixed, mathematically governed focus of classical linear perspective meets the curvature of physical eyes and their continuous scanning motion” (Bender and Marrinan 2010: 63).  And what this humour produces they call “the effect of disequilibrium called amusement” (63).  The affective element in games of visual disruption is much enhanced when the object is a blushing face, for the lines of it are easily understood as indices of temperament or emotion, lowered eyelids and the face turned away and so on, but when they are reinforced by a colour directly expressive of timidity, joy, anger, arousal, or shame then the impact is greater.  And when that colour is perceived as it were from the inside rather than the out, disequilibrium makes room for affect.  It is not too far-fetched then to venture the claim that Hogarth’s tiny outline of a blush turned inside out is in fact a diagram of emotion.

Figure 2: "Moko" Maori facial tatoo.  Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth's Account of Some Voyages (1773).

Figure 2: “Moko” Maori facial tatoo. Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages… (1773).

Twenty years after Hogarth published the Analysis, the British public was treated to further examples of this diagrammatic art in the shape of Sidney Parkinson’s two portraits of Maori from the Poverty Bay region of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s North Island, published in John Hawkesworth‘s An Account of the Voyages and Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere (1773).  These show two very different types of facial tattoo.  One is called moko (Figure 2), composed of whorls and scrolls typical of Maori carving on the finials of meeting houses and the stern-posts of canoes, often framing an ancestral figure or poupou; the other is called puhoro (Figure 3), which bears a remarkable resemblance to Hogarth’s diagram (Figure 1) .  It is a much freer design of volutes and lines derived from the decorative art on the rafters of buildings, known as kowhaiwhai.  The history of puhoro as a facial tattoo is difficult to tell, since by the early 19th century it seems to have been reserved exclusively for thigh ornament; whereas moko very soon after contact became the exclusive design for the face.  Very quickly one observes that moko is an ornament inscribed on the surface, like ink on paper and not, like puhoro, making its way through the ink in the manner of Hogarth’s blush.  Done by chiselling the charred black of candlenut into the subcutanenous layer of the skin, moko was a visual challenge intended to emphasise the contours and furrows of the countenance, particularly those that come into play in grimaces of aggression and fury.  It is also worthwhile pointing out that a moko was unique to each individual and was commonly supposed to reveal a shorthand genealogy as well as the identity of the owner, rather like the heraldic devices on the shields of knights at arms.  Many of the chiefs who signed the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 did it with their moko.  So as well as the emotions incident to the close encounters of battle, this kind of tattoo was the cicatrice of an exceedingly painful set of incisions in the flesh, the perpetual demonstration of a fearful glory, or mana, connecting each hero to his ancestors by means of a design carved into his memory as well as his skin.

Figure 3: "Puhoro" Maori facial tattoo.  Sidney Parkinson.  Hawkesworth's "An Account of the Voyages..." (1773).

Figure 3: “Puhoro” Maori facial tattoo. Sidney Parkinson, from Hawkesworth’s Account of the Voyages… (1773).

Puhoro on the other hand, being seen in negative with white lines defined by a shaded ground, seems much more discreet.  If moko is the sublime, a powerful emission of energy outwards, associating the surface of the skin with the external ornaments of buildings and canoes, puhoro is the beautiful, belonging to the inside of houses, and in some sense the interior of persons.  What the nature of this interior might be is best approached via the idea of tattoo as an affective diagram.  To early European visitors moko seemed not hard to work out:  it was designed to disturb the symmetry of the face, fixing it in a glare that would be frightful in war–at least this was the opinion of Joseph Banks on Cook‘s first voyage, and of J.R. Forster on his second.  Neither of them however was able to view the phenomenon dispassionately:  Banks found himself revolted by faces rendered “enormously ugly,” but at the same time he was fascinated by “the immence Elegance and Justness of the figures in which it is form’d” (Banks 1962: 2.213-4).  It prompted Forster to remember the other side of the affective spectrum, for these carved masks of rage reminded him of the scars left in the foreheads of Polynesian women who cut themselves in order to exhibit in the blood streaming down their faces the reality of their grief for dead relatives or departing friends (Forster 1996: 347).  The most extensive analysis of aggressive disruptions of symmetry in Polynesian art is Nicholas Thomas’s essay “Kiss the Baby Goodbye,” where he explores the implications of objects, whether tattooed, carved or painted, which come too close to their viewers and throw them off guard.  “Like erotica, these artifacts have effects which are indexed in a viewer’s body, which precede and supersede deliberate reading . . . unstable patterns would disempower people and empower others” (Thomas 1995: 101, 99).   So it is mobile and haptic; it means to constitute a physical event for whoever looks at it.  Thomas suggests that the bulges and bends of Sepik and Asmat shields, accentuated by the designs carved and painted on them, exhibit a palpable instability and a pulsing energy–energy analogous, I’d suggest, to the humour that erupts in Hogarth’s “Satire on Perspective,” except that the latter is a diagram of amusement, and these are diagrams of dismay.

Of Parkinson’s tattooed faces, Bernard Smith remarked that they showed no emotion (Smith 1985-87: 1.34-43), and there are perhaps two reasons for that.  The first is that in drawing a facial tattoo a conflict inevitably occurs between the outline of the face and the structure of the design, since that was what was intended by it.  The second is that the conflict is palpable, an effect of the proximity of face to viewer that floods the shared space with energy:  the face is not showing emotion in the sense of representing it, it is causing it to happen.   But how exactly does it do it?  Is it simply by the hydraulics of power, sucking it out of the viewer and storing it in the object being viewed?   Banks is certainly repelled by tattoos, but he is also attracted by them; and in the process of a visual dialectics Bronwen Douglas calls countersigning (Douglas 2005, 51) it is evident that the energy transmitted by a tattoo, lodged in the body when the tattoo was made, is expelled and then returned to it via the body it affects, whether the impulse is provided by revulsion or fascination.   In this respect the link between moko and the aesthetics of the sublime grows stronger, for Longinus noted not only that it struck the auditors or viewers like a blow, leaving them prostrate and in the condition Kant calls Hemmung, but that it was soon followed by a surge of power he called Ergiessung, and Longinus “transport,” when the projected force is rebounded upon the projector, and the victim feels suddenly like the aggressor (Longinus 1739: 14).    Like any challenge, then, moko is an incitement to fight; it is not meant to terminate in the paralysis of the enemy.  It is both the menace of violence and the expectation of it, a weapon and a shield, the trace of blood spilt and the promise of more to flow.


Figure 4

Blood has a milder but still dynamic function in puhoro, where force is not projected so much as apprehended.  As if positioned in a blood-red interior, the inner eye encounters another eye outside that may be wishing to see more than it should.  Its lattice of white perpendicular white lines and transverse volutes, showing up against a darkened or blushing skin, acts like a fan or jalousie to obstruct one option of the viewer and to encourage another.  It obstructs whatever advantage might have accrued from seeing a face reacting to the surprise of being seen, and it encourages the intrusive eye to enjoy its own curvature, and to indulge the scanning motion that is its natural rhythm.   According to Nicholas Thomas kowhaiwhai above all Maori designs figures the motion of things and amuses the eye by inviting it to roll from one optical complexity to another (Thomas 1995:  103-4).

Figure 5: Gunboat HMS Kildangan in dazzle camouflage, 1918.  Imperial War Museum, London.  Printed in Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived.

Figure 5: Gunboat HMS Kildangan in dazzle camouflage, 1918. Imperial War Museum, London. Printed in Forbes, Dazzled and Deceived.

If tattooing owed anything to forms of mimicry in the natural world, then moko would belong to those dazzle patterns of snakes that advertise their venom with loud bands of yellow and red (Figure 4), a technique adapted during the second world war to confuse measurements of the heading and speed of warships while proclaiming very distinctly their deadliness (Figure 5).  Puhoro on the other hand would belong with the arts of camouflage that make nakedness look like something else, such as those butterflies that simulate leaves, and spiders that get by in life by pretending to be bird-droppings (Figure 6).

Figure 6.  Photo by Flickr user ToddinNantou.

Figure 6: Photo by Flickr user ToddinNantou.









Figure 7: Titian, 'Diana and Actaeon', 1556-59 © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

Figure 7: Titian, ‘Diana and Actaeon’, 1556-59 © The National Gallery London / The National Galleries of Scotland

The swirl of energy around the variety of positions charted by adaptive mimicry, what Roger Caillois calls “sculpture photography” (Forbes 2009: 135) and we have been calling 3D affective diagrams, provides the drama one of Titian’s greatest pictures, Diana and Actaeon (Figure 7), painted in the mid-sixteenth century and recently the inspiration of a new three-part ballet called Metamorphosis: Titian 2012, first performed in London in at the Royal Opera House in the summer of 2012.   While hunting in the forest Actaeon stumbles on Diana’s pool, and sees her naked; the goddess is outraged, and is about to fling water in his face that will turn him into his own quarry, a deer.  Of the many artists attracted to this scene, Titian is one of the few to have shown Diana blushing, and almost I think the only one not to show Actaeon with horns growing out of his head. We can see that her blush organises what we might call the diagram of the whole picture, for with the exception of Diana, her black companion and the nymph peering from behind the arch, all the other faces are unlit or half-shaded, as if each is ashamed at having caused the figurehead of chastity to be caught in her bare skin by a man.  Whatever erotic charge might have been in store for Actaeon has backfired, and so we find him engaged in two contrary motions at once, coming forward to look and going back to hide.  Diana herself is engaged in the same awkward manoeuvre, lifting a veil and an arm to conceal her face while at the same time seeming to wind herself up for the throwing of water.  So at either side of the composition a pulse of inward/outward movements is in play that renders the two main figures quite awkward, for Actaeon’s feet seem to be going in a different direction from his torso and his head, contributing to a total effect of what might have been wonder in a painting by Poussin but here looks like extreme uncertainty.  The swivelling of Diana’s body is not at all sinuous, for the leg being dried by her attendant throws it out of balance, while equivocal position of her upper body makes her head look as if it were borrowed from a smaller person.  Her well-lit blushing face, shadowed by the black one alongside, condenses the alternatives set out in the picture at large between the aggressive dazzle of red laid on white, and the recessive possibilities of shade.   Here white emerges from the dark ground of the black woman’s face as if in mimicry of a blush–just like Hogarth’s diagram and Parkinson’s rendition of puhoro.

The woman staring from behind the column quadrates the picture, for while at either side the drama of attraction and repulsion is being played out, there is another occurring on the transverse axis that connects the peering half-hidden nymph on the inside to the spectator on the outside.  Her gaze is directed diagonally at Actaeon suggesting that ours is directed at parallel angle towards Diana, implicating us in Actaeon’s erotic shock.  At an exhibition at the National Gallery mounted to coincide with the performance of the ballet Metamorphosis, this picture was hung by the artist Mark Wallinger near a side room where visitors could look through a peephole into a cabinet where a real naked woman was taking a bath.  Asked what he was aiming at, Wallinger replied, `to make the viewer a little uncomfortable.’  Let me end with a quotation of Thomas Willis, a close affiliate of those Epicureans I began by invoking, on the dual pulse of the blush

Concerning this Passion [of shame], ‘tis observable that when the Corporeall Soul being abashed, is enforced to repress its Compass, she notwithstanding being desirous, as it were to hide this Affection, drives forth outwardly the Blood, and stirs up a redness in the Cheeks. (Willis 1683, 54).

He suggests the blush veils the shame, but insofar as it is directed outwards against a likely witness, it belongs to what he calls the power of dilation or emanation, when the soul “erects and stretches out it self beyond measure’ in its desire to `enlarge the Sphear of [its] Irradiation” (Willis 1683: 45).  The vital energy that animates the blush of anger is mixed up with the blood that signals the contraction of the soul’s compass.  One blush is looking to camouflage itself from an intrusive gaze, the other to dazzle the eye that has presumed to look where it shouldn’t; but the energy they draw upon is the same. In Diana and Actaeon, in Hogarth’s diagram from The Country Dance, and in moko and puhoro tattoos, the same double pulse of energy is in play.  In all three the action of looking and the response to being seen are distributed in three dimensions, so that even the viewer’s eye is implicated in a set of visual contingencies that Lucretius would have called an event.



  •  Joseph Banks  1962, The Endeavour Journal of Joseph Banks, ed. J.C. Beaglehole, 2 vols., Sydney: Public Library of New South Wales and Angus and Robertson.
  • John Bender  2012,  `Matters of Fact:  Virtual Witnessing and the Public in Hogarth’s Narratives,’ in Ends of Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  •  John Bender and Michael Marrinan  2010, The Culture of Diagram, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Bronwen Douglas  2005, “‘Cureous Figures,’ European Voyagers and Tatau/Tattoo in Polynesia, 1595-1800,” in Thomas, Cole, and Douglas eds., Tattoo.
  • Peter Forbes  2009, Dazzled and Deceived, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • John Hawkesworth ed.  1773, An Account of the Voyages and Discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 3 vols., London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell.
  •  William Hogarth  1810, Analysis of Beauty, London: Samuel Bagster
  •  Longinus  1739,  On the Sublime, trans. William Smith, London: J. Watts.
  • Lucretius (Titus Lucretius Carus)  2006, On the Nature of Things, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  •  Thomas Reid  1997, An Inquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense, ed. Derek R. Brookes, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Bernard Smith and Ruediger Joppien  1985-88, Art of Captain Cook’s Voyages, 3 vols., New Haven: Paul Mellon Center for British Art.
  • Nicholas Thomas  1995,  `Kiss the Baby Goodbye: Kowhaiwhai and Aesthetics in Aotearoa New Zealand,’ Critical Inquiry 22 (Autumn 1995), 90-121.
  •  Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole, and Bronwen Douglas eds.  2005,  Tattoo:  Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West, London: Reaktion.
  •  Thomas Willis  1683,  Two Discourses concerning the Soul of Brutes, trans. Sam. Pordage, London:  Thomas Dring.

Erasmus Darwin and the Threat of Materialism

Henry Fuseli, Drawing for the Frontispiece of Erasmus Darwin’s “The Botanic Garden.” Alternate Title: Flora Attired by the Elements. Graphite on slightly textured, cream laid paper. Sheet (sight): 8 3/4 x 6 3/8 inches (22.2 x 16.2 cm). Inscribed on back in graphite: “Fuseli evidently drew this and A. Smith engraved it / The engraving being published June 1st 1791 by J. Johnson. / St. Pauls Churchyard.” Watermark: Britannia. Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Lowell Libson. B2007.2

A Digest of “‘Mere Matter’:  Causality, Subjectivity and Aesthetic Form in Erasmus Darwin.”  Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.  No. 56 (2009).  <http://www.erudit.org/revue/ravon/2009/v/n56/1001100ar.html>.

Allison Dushane, University of Arizona


In his two-part medical treatise Zoonomia (1794-1796), Erasmus Darwin—physician, scientist, and inventor—anticipates his grandson Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory by making a series of startling suggestions:

…would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which The Great First Cause endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!  (Zoonomia, Part I, Section XXXIX.IV.8)

In a single passage, Darwin undermines a creationist perspective on the earth’s history, links the development of all animal and human life to a single “living filament,” or speck of matter, and suggests that the ongoing activity of that matter itself, without the active guidance of an outside force, is responsible for the continued generation of the moral and physical universe.  He later incorporated these ideas into long epic poems that made him one of the most popular poets of the 1790s.

However, in the late-eighteenth century, particularly in the years surrounding the French Revolution, such evolutionary ideas were even more controversial than they are today.  The conservative publication British Critic condemned Darwin’s evolutionary theory, and the Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner, established in 1797, singled out Zoonomia for censure and published two poems that attacked Darwin’s work in parody, labeling him as an atheist, a Jacobin, and a materialist.  His friend and collaborator Joseph Priestley, a scientist and dissenting minister best known for the description and naming of oxygen, also aroused controversy through his materialist ideas and faced much harsher treatment:  in 1791, a riotous mob burned his papers and scientific instruments, driving him to emigrate to America.

What did it mean to be labeled as a “materialist” in eighteenth century Britain?  Or, to put it another way, why was—and is—materialism perceived as threatening?  Why did Darwin’s poetry in particular draw such negative attention?  The answer is philosophical as well as political.  The public perception of materialism was shaped by the systems of several prominent philosophers of the French Enlightenment.  For example, LaMettrie, upon surveying the work of the emerging field of physiology, concludes his 1748 Man a Machine with the invitation to “conclude boldly that man is a machine, and that in the whole universe there is but a single substance differently modified.”  Likewise, the Baron D’Holbach begins his 1770 Systeme de la Nature with the declaration that “man is the work of nature:  he exists in Nature:  he is submitted to her laws:  he cannot deliver himself from them; nor can he step beyond them even in thought” (13).  These images of a man-machine imprisoned by natural laws haunted writers who otherwise embraced the potential they saw in the Enlightenment project for human progress through a scientific program based on reason, observation, and experiment.

Darwin’s ideas, however, were more dynamic, proposing that each individual is at once a product of the ongoing processes of nature on a microscopic level and a contributor to the ongoing development of nature on a macroscopic level.  In Zoonomia, he looks to the “improving excellence observable in every part of the creation” as evidence for the “idea of our present situation being a state of probation, which by our exertions we may improve, and are consequently responsible for our actions.”  His ideas were threatening, not because they suggest that the human is only a cog in a machine, but because they propose that the human self is neither given nor stable, but an ongoing work in progress.  Darwin’s version of materialism points to the limits of individual human agency and overturns a conception of human life as the center of the universe.

James Gillray, “New Morality; -or- the Promis’d Installment of the High-Priest of the Theophilanthropes, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite.” 1798. Paper. AN943289001 © The Trustees of the British Museum. Department: Prints & Drawings. Registration number: 1868,0808.6762 (Note:  At the center of the image, a man standing behind the cornucopia has a basket of plants on his head, and each plant sprouts a bonnet-rouge.  This is labeled ‘Zoonomia or Jacobin Plants’).

Darwin’s first major literary publication in 1789, The Loves of the Plants, was written to illustrate the Linnaean system of classification, using heroic couplets, the conventions of epic, and references to history and mythology to animate the adventures of a host of personified plants.  The Loves of the Plants became Part II of his longer project, The Botanic Garden, when an edition bound with Part I, The Economy of Vegetation, came out three years later.  His posthumously published The Temple of Nature more explicitly developed his evolutionary ideas.  What makes Darwin’s poetry fascinating isn’t necessarily the fact that the verse focuses on scientific subject matter.  Rather, it is the work’s extensive prose “Philosophical Notes” that link the images and actions in the poem to the work and writing of contemporary scientists, inventors, and artists through extensive citation and commentary.  His poetry, which aims to “enlist the Imagination under the banner of science,” is explicitly aimed at educating—and exciting—the poetry-reading public about scientific discoveries.  For example, consider this passage depicting the origins of the universe through something like a proto-big bang theory, for which Darwin came under attack for its early vision of an evolutionary and self-sustaining nature:

Astonish’d Chaos heard the potent word;—
Through all his realms the kindling Ether runs,
And the mass starts into a million suns;
Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,
And second planets issue from the first;
Bend, as they journey with projectile force,
In bright ellipses their reluctant course;
Orbs wheel in orbs, round centres centres roll,
And form, self-balanced, one revolving Whole.  (Economy, Canto I, lines 103-114)

In Darwin’s footnote to this passage, he muses:  “We can have no idea of a natural power, which could project a Sun out of Chaos…of the power of which under immeasurable degrees of heat, and compression, we are yet ignorant” (1.1.105n).  Despite that basic ignorance of nature’s power, which comprises a part of the threat of materialism, Darwin proceeds to narrate nature’s processes in tandem with an account of man’s efforts to understand and harness them for human ends.

In 1798, the Anti-Jacobin published James Gillray’s political cartoon, The New Morality, which features a group of radical politicians and literary figures marching to worship at a temple of French ideas.  It depicts Darwin in the mob along with Priestley, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Thelwall, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and it also references The Botanic Garden with the image of a basket of anthropomorphized riotous plants.  The Anti-Jacobin also published a long poem, “The Progress of Man. A Didactic Poem,” which attacks dynamic matter theories like Darwin’s, aiming a parody squarely at the above passage:

Whether some great, supreme o’er-ruling Power
Stretched forth its arm at nature’s natal hour,
Composed this mighty whole with plastic skill,
Wielding the jarring elements at will?
Or whether sprung from Chaos’ mingling storm,
The mass of matter started into form?
Or Chance o’er earth’s green lab spontaneous fling
The fruits of autumn and the flowers of spring?
Whether material substance unrefined,
Owns the strong impulse of instinctive mind,
Which to one centre points diverging lines,
Confounds, refracts, invig’rates, and combines?
Whether the joys of earth, the hopes of heaven,
By Man to God, or God to Man, were given?
If virtue leads to bliss, or vice to woe?
Who rules above? or who reside below?
Vain Questions all—shall Man presume to know?  (1-17)

A footnote accompanying this passage urges the reader to see “Godwin’s Enquirer; Darwin’s Zoonomia; Paine; Priestley, &c.&c.&c.; also all the French Encyclopedists.”  The author of “The Progress of Man” conflates materialist thinking with radical political and religious thinkers while calling into question the validity of any intellectual enterprise that dares to question the origin and accepted order of the universe and the place of human life within it.   Specifically, he dismisses poetry as a fitting medium for such inquiries, insisting that not only does “Man” have no business dealing with such matters, but also that poetry is a particularly presumptuous medium for doing so.  Ironically, however, the Anti-Jacobin’s attack on materialist thinking, and the popularity of Darwin’s poetry more generally as a medium for disseminating scientific ideas to the public, only underscores the significance of literature for thinking through matters of “Chaos” and “Chance,” of “Matter” and “Man.”

Iceland and Eighteenth-Century Travel and Exploration

William Daniell, “Sir Joseph Banks” (circa 1808-1814). Graphite and red chalk on medium, moderately textured, cream laid paper mounted on moderately thick, slightly textured, beige laid paper. Sheet: 9 7/8 x 7 1/4 inches (25.1 x 18.4 cm). Inscribed in graphite, lower center: “Sir Joseph Banks”, watermark on mount: lion within shield with initials D and M on either side; MDCCCXXVII below. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Prints and Drawings. B1975.4.1129

Iceland didn’t make much of an impact on eighteenth-century British literature.  Mount Hecla appears every now and then in poetic evocations of the far-flung edges of the world, and there is a well-known joke in The Life of Johnson about Johnson’s ability to quote verbatim an entire chapter of Niels Horrebow’s Natural History of Iceland (tr. 1758).  (It is the chapter on snakes, which runs simply, in James Boswell’s slightly misquoted version, “There are no snakes to be met with throughout the whole island.”)  When Sir Joseph Banks went to Iceland in 1772, leading the first major British expedition to the island, it was more or less by accident:  he had been planning to accompany James Cook on his second voyage to the South Pacific, but the Admiralty intervened because of what they saw as Banks’ excessive demands for space for his equipment and his companions.  Deciding not to waste the organizational efforts he had already made, he simply headed north instead of south.  Yet even if Iceland fell short of Tahiti and the other South Sea islands in terms of sheer distance and glamour, a small but significant body of English-language writing on the island started appearing in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth, much which proclaims itself to be the product of exactly the sort of scientific and philosophical curiosity that ostensibly drove the more elaborate, glamorous, and high profile expeditions to the South Pacific.  Most of these accounts of Iceland are framed in more or less utilitarian terms, as a straightforward pursuit of scientific knowledge, but in fact they tend to slide more or less precipitously from dry records of height, distance, and other such measurements into the language of the magical and the fantastic, as writers attempt to convey the impact of what they suggest is the almost indescribable Icelandic landscape.  The result is an intriguing if relatively unfamiliar body of work that not only offers glimpses of a part of Europe that remained both literally and figuratively on the fringes of the known world in later eighteenth-century Britain, but also that demonstrates some of the complexities and challenges facing travel writers as they tried to merge their scientific and cultural observations with an evocation of what they present as the strange and wonderful world around them.

Given the novelty of Iceland as a destination at the time of Banks’ expedition, and even for decades afterwards, it is hardly surprising that the later eighteenth-century writers who took it as their subject tended to insist upon the value of the information they were offering rather than calling attention to the charms of their style.  The English translation of Uno von Troil’s Letters on Iceland–the only published account of Banks’ expedition–foregrounds the matter-of-fact rather than the literary, addressing matters ranging from volcanoes to Icelandic cuisine and to the varieties of whales to be found in Icelandic waters, among many other topics–according to the presumed interests of the person being addressed.  Yet that is not quite what one would expect if one judged by the book’s reviews.  The Monthly Review, for example, seemed to find von Troil’s picture of Iceland less a matter of facts and figures than it was a vision of the exotic, the mysterious, and the dangerous–in a word, of the sublime.  Describing Iceland as a fantastical place that “within a small and almost inconsiderable space freezes with the utmost rigour, and burns with all the violence of the most intense flame” (187-88), the reviewer presents a version of the country that might sound at least somewhat at odds with von Troil’s deprecating assessment of it as a “dreary” land “so little favoured by nature” that “one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature” (25).  Yet the reviewer’s rhapsodic evocation of a sublimely elemental world of fire and ice is not as unjustified by von Troil’s prose as one might be tempted to think if one looked simply at the headings of his letters or leafed through his accounts of matters such as Icelandic breeds of cattle or the economy of the in-shore fishery.  The language of science repeatedly slips into the poetic, the sublime, and the wonderful.  In von Troil’s hands, the landscape is not merely empty but actively hostile, made up of “vitrified cliffs, whose high and sharp points seem to vie with each other, to deprive you of the sight” of what little greenery there is.  Even as simple a matter as the absence of trees around the coastal villages becomes an occasion for an oddly plaintive moment of inverted pastoralism:  “a single tree,” von Troil writes, “does no where appear that may afford shelter to friendship and innocence” (25).  Indeed, von Troil himself suggests that the language of science might be inadequate to his needs.  A long letter to a Professor Bergmann of Stockholm about geysers that specifies the heat of the water, the mineralogical composition of the surrounding rocks, and other such matters concludes with a lamentation that “the best description will fall very short” of the “most uncommon phænomena” that he witnessed at Geysir, because it would require “the pen of a Thomson” to create an adequate idea of the scene (257).

The idea of Iceland as a land that demands a poetic imagination to convey scientific fact can be further illustrated by a quick glance at travelers’ accounts of what was perhaps the most famous of the island’s natural phenomena, Mount Hecla.  Understandably, given the late-eighteenth-century interest in earth sciences, it attracted the fascinated attention of British travelers and readers alike, and in one respect, accounts of Hecla from this period could be read as exemplifying the power of science to kill myth.  Supposedly the haunt of demons and the entrance to hell, Hecla seen up close was simply another mountain, according to Henry Holland, who climbed it in 1810, when, as a young medical student, he accompanied Sir George Mackenzie to Iceland.  Yet even so, Holland’s journal presents the snow-filled crater at the summit in terms that recall von Troil’s reactions to the geysers, as he moves from matter-of-fact observation to an evocation of magic and fantasy:  “The bottom of the crater,” Holland writes,

Is filled with a vast mass of congealed snow–which by the process of melting, gradually proceeding during the summer, has been hollowed beneath in several places, so as to form caverns of some extent.  Entering these caverns, we were surprized & gratified by the singular beauty of their appearance–the congealed snow had acquired a bluish transparency of colour, the effect of which in certain points of view, was at once extraordinary and pleasing–The magical palaces of an eastern tale, could not have been better illustrated to the eye.  (260)

This oscillation between the languages of science and romance is something that Holland maintains elsewhere in this journal.  “If a foresight of the infernal regions of mythological story were desired,” he writes of Krýsuvík, “this would be the spot where the wish might best be gratified” (128).  He then turns, matter-of-factly, to a detailed description of the sedimentation patterns of the clay and rocks.

Passages such as this underline the difficulty, in this writing, of sustaining any distinction between scientific and the more self-consciously literary travel writing of the Enlightenment.  The result, for Holland and others, are accounts that suggest the inadequacy of either scientific travel or the more conventionally belle lettristic type of travel writing to communicate fully what the traveler is seeing.  Of course, the attempt to represent in language the supposedly unrepresentable is something of a cliché by the end of the eighteenth century, but that does not make these journals by early travelers to Iceland any less innovative or intriguing.  As Holland attempted (in his words) both to add to “the interests & advancement of science” (273), and to give an adequate sense of his own pleasure in and wonder at a place that was remote, in all senses, from anything he had previously seen, he is demonstrating the flexibility rather than the limitations of the genre of the travel journal.  Just as importantly, he is also helping to shape the concept of Iceland, in the minds of British readers of the day, as a place that is not only a scientific curiosity but also, and even because of that, exceeds all they can imagine of the sublime.

Works Cited

Anon, “Rev. of Letters on Iceland.”  The Monthly Review.  Vol. 63 (1780):  187-98.

Holland, Henry.  The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland, 1810.  Ed. Andrew

Wawn.  London:  The Hakluyt Society, 1987.

Von Troil, Uno.  Letters on Iceland.  London:  J. Robson, 1780.

18th-Century Balloonomania!

An exact representation of Mr Lunardi's New Balloon as it ascended with himself 13 May 1785

An exact representation of Mr Lunardi’s New Balloon as it ascended with himself 13 May 1785. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder describes the balloonomania that seized France and England in 1783 when competing impresarios ascended in the first hot-air balloons.  Beyond Holmes’ chapter, there is even more balloonomania to explore.

Today, Thomas Keymer examines the venerable Samuel Johnson’s interest in balloons and human flight throughout his career in a post for the Oxford University Press blog:

Initially, Johnson saw huge potential in balloons for advancing human knowledge, and subscribed to a scientifically motivated scheme for high-altitude flight, which, he wrote, would “bring down the state of regions yet unexplored.” He was fascinated by thoughts of the view from above, though he couldn’t imagine seeing “the earth a mile below me, without a stronger impression on my brain than I should like to feel.” But in time Johnson grew more sceptical about the value of balloons—fragile, combustible, impossible to direct—for either transportation or science, and disease preoccupied him instead: “I had rather now find a medicine that can ease an asthma.” He never makes the analogy explicit, but it’s clear from his last letters that, consciously or otherwise, he came to associate his bloated, dropsical body with a sinking balloon, and his difficulty in breathing with an aeronaut’s struggle to stay inflated. In a gloomy, earthbound message just weeks before death, he seems to glimpse the void in Montgolfier shape. “You see some ballons succeed and some miscarry, and a thousand strange and a thousand foolish things,” he tells the enviably youthful, mobile Francesco Sastres: “But I see nothing; I must make my letter from what I feel, and what I feel with so little delight, that I cannot love to talk of it.”  [Read Keymer’s complete post here. ]

Gilbert King recently described the life of Sophie Blanchard, the first female aeronaut of the balloon craze in a post for Smithsonian Magazine’s website.

You can explore the Smithsonian Museum’s array of ceramics, textiles, paintings, furniture, and other objects commemorating and capitalizing on the balloonomania by browsing the collection The Birth of the Balloon at the National Air and Space Museum website.

Paul Keen’s new book Literature, Commerce, and the Spectacle of Modernity, 1750-1800, (Cambridge University Press, 2012) includes a chapter on Balloonomania; you can read a brief extract of the chapter here.

Happy (Recent) Birthday, Sir William Herschel!

Sir William Herschel, detail of an oil painting by L. Abbott, 1785; in the National Portrait Gallery, London. © National Portrait Gallery, London

November 15 was the birthday of composer and astronomer Sir William Herschel (1738-1822).  As a musician who also discovered the planet Uranus, Herschel plays a starring role in Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009), a book that is one of our points of departure at The 18th-Century Common.  On November 15, 2012, the radio program Composers Datebook played Herschel’s Oboe Concerto in C; you can listen the program here.  A short biography of Herschel can be found here.  A collection of the papers of William Herschel, Caroline Herschel, and John F. W. Herschel are housed at the Royal Astronomical Society.   You can see a picture of the 20-foot telescope Herschel built here.  You can explore Herschel’s accounts of his astronomical findings at 18thConnect.org, where I’ve created an “Exhibit” of 4 texts.  Tristra Johnson examines the representation of gender in Holmes’ account of William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel for The 18th-Century Common here.

The Age of Wonder and the Image of Genius

Julia Margaret Cameron, “Sir John Herschel,” 1867. Albumen silver print from glass negative. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

What does genius look like? One place to start is the hair, to judge from photographs of Albert Einstein. The famous physicist was not the first to suggest that an unkempt mane is a sure sign of an active mind. When the Victorian Julia Margaret Cameron produced this portrait of John Herschel in 1867, she had waited three years “to take this noble head of my great master,” and she was not going to miss her chance to highlight his genius.

For Cameron in particular, Herschel was “Teacher and High Priest,” who sent her the first photographs she had ever seen. She demanded that Herschel wash his hair and tousle it, and wild tufts of white hair became an external sign—a visual—for the internal workings of the mind.

As an art historian, I have read Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder with one eye on the visuals. In this regard, I must take Holmes to task for his treatment of most illustrations in the book as just that—illustrations. As the historian Raphael Samuel reminded us, we can find valuable historical knowledge in images, but we must approach them carefully: looking not for the information that we gain from them, but rather focusing on the information that we bring to them. What do Richard Holmes’s insights mean, then, for the visual art of this period? And what might this add for our understanding of a slightly later cultural moment, which is my own period of research specialization.  The appearance of Sir John Hershel in the book, often viewed as a Victorian figure, raises interesting questions in this regard.

Holmes introduces Herschel in Chapter 9, where he already appears as the product of a different generation. He is the “apprentice” to his father the “sorcere” William Herschel, and he is a foil that allows the author to update the reader on the fates of the elder Herschel, his sister Caroline, and Sir Joseph Banks. Humphry Davy continues to be the main focus of the narrative; Holmes writes a eulogy for the age of wonder in his consideration of Davy’s Consolations in Travel, or, the Last Days of the Philosopher from 1830, even as he re-affirms what he calls “the awe-inspiring” and “visionary nature of the sciences.” The following year, 1831, seems like a decisive break: Charles Darwin departs for his voyage on The Beagle and the “Young Scientists” introduced in chapter 10, Darwin among them, announce a new generation. Holmes notes that “scientist” was recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1840, the same year that John Herschel dismantled his father’s old forty-foot telescope. The year before, Herschel commemorated his father’s achievement by making it the subject of some of his first successes with the incipient medium of photography. Herschel produce a number of negatives, including a blue one using the process known as cyanotype, and as well as “positives” printed from a glass negative, a support that did not become standard practice until the 1850s. The “eye” of the camera lens memorializes the sweeping “eye” of the telescope that enabled the elder Herschel to scan the heavens. In this, it seems to declare a very different set of ambitions, leaving aside the fact that the son quite literally dismantles the work of the father. The younger Herschel gives us the means and the apparatus. How very Victorian! Utilitarianism and professionalization come first. The elder Herschel, in contrast, keeps his eyes and his desire focused on the heavens, not unlike William Blake’s illustration of a star-gazer from 1793.

Yet at least one Victorian view of Herschel would seem to contradict this interpretation. We need look no further than Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographic portrait of Herschel to find the inspired genius. While not included in The Age of Wonder, Holmes himself references this photograph at the very end of his tale, where Herschel is recognized as the leading public scientist of the mid-Victorian era. As he describes it “his kindly face, encircled by a sunlike corona of white hair, was famously photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron, using a process that he himself had partly invented.” (More on that in a moment). Draped in black, Herschel faces the lens with the seriousness of an Old Testament prophet even as Cameron eschews the usual focus and finish of the portrait photograph. In a footnote, Holmes explains that Herschel appears both “benign” and “eccentric,” a combination that “defined the Victorian ideal of the scientist.” And here I must disagree with Holmes’s assessment: there is nothing particularly “Victorian” about the “eccentricity” of this image: as Ludmilla Jordanova has recently suggested, “romantic idioms” continued to inform depictions of scientists into the twentieth century. Furthermore, the extreme play of light and dark in Cameron’s photograph is meant to address the centrality of Herschel’s theorization of light to the invention of photography.

If we go back to 1830, and think not of Davy’s Consolations but instead of Herschel’s important essay “Light,” we might be able to expand the boundaries of the age of wonder. This monumental article for the Encyclopedia Metropolitana of 1830 (it ran to some 240 pages) suggests that the “Age of Wonder” prompted the cultural imperative of photography.

Acclaimed as the Isaac Newton of his generation, Herschel occupies a special place in the history of photography. His chemical experiments of 1819 led to its invention, and it was Herschel who first described the results of this new process as a “negative” that prints a “positive.” His language still determines the way we envision this process of image making: he was the first to use the term “snap shot,” and he coined the term “photography,” or light writing, to describe the experiments of his friend William Henry Fox Talbot.

In his essay, Herschel proclaims the centrality of sight to experience, declaring that “sight is the most perfect of our sense; the most various and the most accurate in the information it affords us; and the most delightful in its exercise.” This celebration of the visual comes as no surprise when we examine Herschel’s accomplished drawings and watercolors such as this botanical specimen from 1824. As Herschel continues, “Apart from all considerations of utility, the mere perception of light is in itself a source of enjoyment.” This assertion of the delight in nature, then takes a turn for the divine: “When to this we join the exact perception of form and motion, the wondrous richness and variety of colour, and the ubiquity conferred upon us by just impressions of situation and distance, we are lost in amazement and gratitude.” Herschel’s observations here are infused with the language of wonder, as he shifts easily between “exactness” and “impressions.” As scholars such as Geoffrey Batchen and Douglas Nickel have argued, this pairing underpins the invention of photography—the first photographic process, seen here in an example by William Henry Fox Talbot, involved taking the object itself (the exact thing) and allowing the sun to leave its “impression.” Early photographers such as Talbot discussed this process in the same way as “marvelous” “fairy pictures,” the product of “sorcery” “alchemy” “natural philosophy” that was a the same time “natural magic.” According to Douglas Nickel, these are the “Romantic epistemological preconditions” that allowed photography to develop.

Holmes’s Age of Wonder describes not just scientific discovery but also wonder at the unknown, of beauty and terror. If we look a different “impressions” of John Herschel from Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1867 sitting, known not as “the Portrait of Sir John Herschel” but “The Astronomer,” we might see them with new eyes, filtered through the ideas of 1819, 1830, and 1867. The astronomer still scans the heavens.