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Smyth, Charles Piazzi

The Zodiacal Light as Seen on the Breede River at the Cape of Good Hope...

  • A rare and evocative lithograph of the zodiacal light as seen from the Breede River in South Africa, observed and, most unusually, lithographed by the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900). Smyth’s print was “the first attempt to furnish a realistic depiction of this elusive feature” of the night sky (Warner, Charles Pizaai Smyth: Astronomer-Artist, His Cape Years, p. 101). Copies of this lithograph are exceptionally scarce. We can locate only one, in the Herschel family collection at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (object ID PAH6023). Searches of COPAC, WorldCat, and auction records trace no others. Given that the paper they were designed to illustrate was never published, it seems unlikely that more than a handful were ever 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). It was during this period that Smyth attempted observations of the zodiacal light. This is the glow, also known as the false dawn, which appears along the ecliptic at twilight and just before sunrise, and is caused by light from the sun reflecting off interplanetary dust.

    In addition to photography, 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. His depictions of the Great Comet of 1843 are now considered “the most impressive” illustrations of that apparition (Stoyan, Atlas of Great Comets). 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, 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 Zodiacial Light and Great Comet 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/30/18/7). This copy of the lithograph is especially intriguing because of the pencilled annotation next to Smith’s printed initials, “del[iniavit] & lit”, indicating that Smyth 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. This annotation does not appear in the NMM copy.

    The zodiacal light continued to be an interest of Smyth’s throughout his career, particularly in the 1870s when he turned his attention to “spectroscopy and the ‘new astronomy’, a term used to denote the area of astronomy later known as astrophysics... One of his aims, successfully carried out, was to discriminate in the sun's spectrum between absorption lines of purely solar origin and those produced in the earth's atmosphere. Among other researches were studies of the spectra of the aurora (observed from Edinburgh), the zodiacal light (observed from Palermo), and the so-called rainband, due to atmospheric water vapour. In the laboratory he concentrated on the spectra of diatomic molecules and, in collaboration with Alexander Stewart Herschel, deciphered the harmonic structure of the green carbon monoxide band” (ODNB).

  • ...June 1844. [Edinburgh], June 1848.

    Lithograph (print 190 x 264 mm; sheet 277 x 384 mm). Professionally mounted, framed and glazed using archival materials. The printed captions have been amended in pencil, in a contemporary hand, to record that the prints were “del & lith” - drawn and lithographed - by “CPS”. Professionally cleaned using archival methods but with some faint spots remaining, some light creasing and four short closed tears at the bottom edge of the sheet which have been archivally repaired, another short closed tear at the upper edge with the same treatment, none affecting the image. Miniscule pinprick at the top left and lower right corners of the lithograph Very good condition.

Collections: Astronomy & Cosmology

Category: Gifts, Illustrated

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