I began working at the Royal Society a few months ago on work placement for my Master’s degree at the University of Sussex. As I am currently studying Art History and Museum Curating, I have been tasked with cataloguing illustrations while at the Society. This has included material from one of the Library’s most recent acquisitions, a set of 11 manuscript volumes of the Illustrated London Almanack (ILA) compiled by James Glaisher FRS (1809-1903) – useful preparation for an upcoming exhibition on astronomy.
The first issue of the ILA was published in 1845 as a branch of the Illustrated London News, the leading illustrated weekly publication of the period. From the beginning, the primary focus of the ILA was scientific information, particularly natural history, meteorology and astronomy, aimed at a general readership. Over the years the ILA trimmed down its content, however, and meteorological discussions were removed by the second issue. Instead, the editors decided to increase the Almanack’s focus on astronomy. Many articles appeared in each issue, instructing readers on how to observe the stars, planets, and various heavenly phenomena, as well as discussing newly discovered heavenly bodies, including the asteroids.
Accompanying these science features were a variety of astronomical illustrations and figures. Through the inclusion of visuals, the ILA set out to establish itself as a middle-class resource for education. It wanted to provide for that part of the population which “is more open to receive information from pictorial representation than from tabulated numbers”, as the introduction to the 1852 issue explained.
The Almanack manuscripts held by the Society are dated from 1846 to 1857 (minus the 1855 volume) and contain many of the original drawings, with associated proof versions used for the astronomical engravings in the final published prints. One drawing which I found particularly striking was the planet Saturn, observed through the telescope of the scientist and early astronomical photographer Warren de la Rue FRS (1815-1889) in 1852:
I loved the level of detail in the drawing, compared with the routine explanatory figures reproduced elsewhere in the Almanack. While it may seem extraordinarily simple in this age of NASA’s high definition photographs of faraway galaxies and nebulae, when one considers the comparatively simple equipment being used in the nineteenth century, the study suddenly becomes most impressive. Saturn’s rings are shown in all their glory, and if you look closely you can see the shadow cast by the planet on the rings. Many of the other representations of planets in the ILA manuscripts are little more than circles and dots of varying sizes, but this “simple” drawing of Saturn aspires to being something else, just as today’s NASA-produced images give the precision of science a genuine aesthetic appeal. Now, that isn’t to say that the other illustrations are unimportant or uninteresting in other ways – I mean, the maths behind eclipse shadow-paths or planetary orbital charts is enough to make my head spin. But this drawing just happened to astound me more than anything.
Overall, I think working with the Illustrated London Almanack has made this non-scientist realize to what extent I, and I would think my generation, underestimate the scientific achievements and endeavours of the past. The nineteenth century seems so far away that I find myself unable to imagine it being just as sophisticated an environment in which capable and even elaborate observations were made. An image such as this reminds me not only of how far we have come scientifically – compare with the quite extraordinary Cassini mission flyby photographs – but also how advanced our predecessors were. It’s an amazing universe out there.