A rare and historically significant mezzotint depicting the great meteor seen over Britain on August 18th, 1783, “one of the most riveting astronomical events of the eighteenth century” (Olson & Pasachoff, Fire in the Sky: Comets and Meteors, the Decisive Centuries in British Art and Science, pp. 63-78). We can locate only three institutional copies, at the British Library, the British Museum, and the Wellcome Collection, and no other copies in recent auction records. This copy has been closely trimmed, removing the final line of the text but leaving intact the small cardinal directions at the top, left, and right.
The great meteor of 1783 was visible for over a thousand miles over northwestern Europe. It “ranks among the brightest and most spectacular of such objects ever recorded” and was responsible for some of the “first detailed and generally accurate representations of such a phenomenon” (Beech, “The Great Meteor of 18th August 1783” in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, vol. 99, no. 3, pp. 130-134). Witnesses reported that the meteor lit up the whole sky, with a letter in the Evening Chronicle recounting that its “lustre almost equalled the sun”. The natural philosopher Tiberious Cavallo viewed the meteor with a group of friends from the terrace at Windsor Castle, later writing that “every object appeared very distinct; the whole face of the country being instantly illuminated” (Payne, “Meteors and Perceptions of Environmental Change in the Annus Mirabilis AD 1783-4”, Northwest Geography, vol. 11, no. 1, 2011).
The man responsible for this print, Henry Robinson, was one of only two artists to make a serious attempt at capturing the meteor’s appearance, the other being Paul Sandby, a draughtsman and the brother of one of Cavallo’s companions at Windsor, who produced a series of still-famous engravings of the event (Beech). Little is known about Robinson save what is included in the print, that he was a schoolmaster who viewed the phenomenon from Winthorpe near Newark-upon-Trent. Though noting that the meteor at first appeared “as one Ball of Fire”, Robinson depicted it in the later stage when it had broken into a number of pieces. “The ‘wiggly’ shape of their tails suggest that they flickered, this being in contrast to the straight tails (and short-lived trains) left by the lesser shooting stars” (Beech). Robinson also effectively used chiaroscuro to represent the meteor’s brightness, highlighting the clouds, sides of buildings, and front of the shocked figure viewing the event (perhaps a self-portrait?) “Robinson’s etching is both pleasing and dramatic, and gives a clear idea of how spectacular this meteor must have appeared when seen from the quiet of rural England” (Beech).
Most significantly, Robinson’s print was immediately recognised as an important contribution to the scientific and historical record. More than eighty years later it was still being cited in scientific discussions of the nature of meteors, with S. A. Herschel comparing Robinson and Sandby’s illustrations to one depicting a fireball over Athens in 1863.
...At first it appeared as one Ball of Fire, but, in a few seconds, broke into many small ones. It’s course was from N.W. to S.E. This extraordinary Phaenomenon was of that Species of Meteor which the great Phisiologist Dr. Woodward and others call the Draco volans or Flying Dragon. The above View was taken at Winthorpe near Newark upon Trent, by Henry Robinson, schoolmaster. And published by him... Winthorpe: Henry Robinson, October 14th, 1783.
Mezzotint (print 161 x 245 mm, sheet 177 x 250 mm). Conservation mounted, framed, and glazed using archival materials. Trimmed closely cutting off the final line of text “as the Act directs, 14th Oct. 1783. This plate is inscribed to Roger Pocklington, Esqr. by his much obliged and humble servant, Henry Robinson”.
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