Smyth, Charles Piazzi

The Great Comet of 1843 as seen at the Cape of Good Hope...

  • A rare and evocative lithograph of the Great Comet of 1843 as seen from the Cape of Good Hope, observed and, most unusually, also lithographed by the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900). Copies of this print are exceptionally scarce, with none recorded in COPAC, WorldCat, or auction records. Given that the paper was never published, it seems unlikely that more than a handful were produced.

    Smyth was born to well-connected British parents in Naples, his father being a naval officer and respected amateur astronomer, and his mother the daughter of the British Consul to the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Smyth’s godfather was the famous Sicilian astronomer Giuseppe Piazzi, from whom he received his middle name. Thanks to his father’s connections, at age sixteen Smyth was made assistant to Thomas Maclear, HM Astronomer at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope. “He spent ten years in southern Africa working in positional astronomy and in arduous geodetic surveys of the province. Encouraged by John Herschel, he experimented in early photography and in 1843 succeeded in producing the oldest known calotypes of people and scenes in southern Africa” (ODNB).

    During Smyth’s time in the Cape a remarkable comet appeared in the skies. “The Great March Comet of 1843 was so bright that it was seen in the daytime sky by many people on every continent”, though its brightest and largest appearance was in the southern hemisphere (Stoyan, Atlas of Great Comets). Its tail, measuring up to 70° (more than 350 million kilometers in length), still holds the record for length, and John Herschel described it in 1849 as “by far the most remarkable comet of the century” (Stoyan).

    Smyth was a talented amateur artist who frequently painted and sketched, both in connection with his astronomical work and as an observer of the people and landscapes around him. “The naturalistic representations and watercolours by Chales Piazzi Smyth, who was working at the Cape of Good Hope when the comet appeared, are the most impressive reproductions of this apparition of a comet” (Stoyan). Smyth was particularly interested in printing techniques and their applications to scientific illustration. His first major published work was a paper submitted to the Royal Astronomical Society on this subject, in which he “reviews critically the illustrations in several recent publications and discourses with apparent authority on the processes of engraving, aquatintintg and mezzotinting. He suggests modifications that might be used to yield more subtle effects” (Warner, Charles Pizaai Smyth: Astronomer-Artist, His Cape Years, p. 113).

    Smyth’s proficiency with lithography and copperplate engraving allowed him to print the illustrations for his own papers, a practice that was (and indeed, still is) unusual (Warner, p. 113). In 1846 he was appointed Astronomer Royal at Edinburgh, “the hub of the printing and illustration industry... in these circumstances he did not need to acquire a press, but bought or hired stones on which he could draw his pictures and then send the stones to the nearest printer. Piazzi was engaged in lithographing of his sketches ‘The Zodiacal Light as Seen at the Cape of Good Hope’ and ‘The Great Comet of 1843’ —to be used in his published accounts— when [his friend from South Africa, the artist] Charles Bell arrived in 1847”. At first, Piazzi sent his stones to the printer W. Walton, who was probably responsible for this print, but later Bell purchased a press which he and Piazzi shared (Warner, pp. 114-115).

    Both The Great Comet and The Zodiacal Light were meant to illustrate Smyth’s unpublished paper “Attempt to apply instrumental measurement to the zodiacal light”, which was completed on March 25th, 1848, received by the Royal Society on the 13th of April, and withdrawn on the 2nd of November. The manuscript and the original painting are still at the Royal Society and have been digitised (references AP/30/18 and AP/30/18/5), and two oil paintings of the comet by Smyth are held at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich (object ID BHC4148 and BHC4147). This copy of the lithograph is especially intriguing because of the pencilled annotation where Smith’s printed initials should be: “CPS del[iniavit] & lit”, indicating that he made the lithograph himself. Though the writing is dissimilar to Smyth’s formal hand, the likeliest explanation is that it was inserted by himself or someone close to him.

  • the Evening of March 3rd. [Edinburgh], June 1848.

    Lithograph (print 115 x 182 mm; sheet 277 x 384 mm). Conservation mounted, framed and glazed using archival materials. Professionally cleaned using archival methods but with some faint spots remaining, short closed tear at the right edge archivally repaired. Excellent condition.

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