Sunday 9 November 2014

A Watercolour Meteor

Paul Sandby RA (Nottingham, England, birthdate unknown, baptised 1731 – London, England, 9th November 1809) 

Hailing from my own homeland of Nottingham, English artist Paul Sanby was a mapmaker who turned his skills to watercolour and landscape. Later one of the founder members of the Royal Academy, Sandby and his brother, Thomas, the Deputy Ranger of Windsor Great Park, were both highly talented chaps. It is Paul who commands my attention today, with his 1783 work, The Meteor of August 18, 1783, as seen from the East Angle of the North Terrace, Windsor Castle.

The Meteor of August 18, 1783, as seen from the East Angle of the North Terrace, Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, 1773

Sandby spent many long and happy days at Windsor in the company of his brother and he happened to be at the Castle on the fateful night of 18th August 1783, when a meteor sped across the heavens. The event caused enormous excitement across the nation and things were no different at Windsor where just after 9.15pm, Sandby watched in wonder alongside a group of friends that included Tiberius Cavallo, an Italian philosopher who would later write his own account of the meteor.

Sandby's own account of the event was a pictorial one and he produced this wonderfully evocative watercolour. For me the beauty of the work is in its simplicity. The fine surroundings of Windsor are reduced to a wall and terrace on which half a dozen people stand, dwarfed by the heavens above. In the moonlight they throw long shadows yet their attention and ours is caught by the bright meteor that streaks across the centre of the canvas. One can only imagine the excitement of witnessing such an unexpected astronomical event and I think Sandby has perfectly captured the scale of the heavens in comparison to Windsor and his companions; they stand and watch in awe, as so many others must have on that warm summer night.


Sarah said...

I have to say it looks more like a comet to me, not a meteor... though it 'sped across the sky' so that sounds like a meteor. With that sort of tail presumably it grazed the atmosphere and went quite deep; a near miss! I've found a number of comets and meteors mentioned in the newspapers, though my period of reading is more 1770s to 1820

Catherine Curzon said...

A near miss indeed! It was very well documented, I suspect you may be coming across it in your reading if you haven't already!