Victorian scientists’ drawings of nebulae explored in new book

30 July 2014

Before the Hubble telescope, Victorian scientists used pencil and paper to record their observations of the stars. Their beautifully detailed drawings were the precursors of modern astronomy, and may even have inspired one of the most well-known works of Impressionist art.

Observing By Hand, a new book by Oxford University historian Dr Omar Nasim, relates how these scientists used the most mundane equipment – simple pencils and paper – to record distant space phenomena. The book focuses on drawings of nebulae, the interstellar clouds of dust and gas where new stars are born.

“In the 18th and 19th centuries, nebulae were a very new and enigmatic phenomenon,” said Dr Nasim, a Newton International Fellow at Oxford University’s Faculty of History and The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH). “Scientists were used to observing round objects such as stars and planets, so the misty shapes of nebulae were astoundingly challenging. They made thousands of drawings to try and capture the shape and nature of these mysterious, ambiguous forms. They would usually work in pencil first, and later produce definitive ink drawings or prints. The physical act of drawing helped them understand the structure of these objects they observed.”

Dr Nasim believes that one drawing he studied was the inspiration behind Van Gogh’s painting Starry Night. The link between Van Gogh and Lord Rosse is not a new one, but Dr Nasim provides further context and insight into the connection. Lord Rosse, an Irish aristocrat and astronomer, built the largest telescope in existence at the time, which had a mirror six feet in diameter and became known locally as “the Leviathan of Parsonstown”. With this instrument, he was able to observe and describe the “Great Spiral”, which we know today as the Whirlpool Galaxy. His engraving of 1850 was the first to define the spiral shape of the object.

Dr Nasim said: ‘The Whirlpool Galaxy can clearly be seen at the centre of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, which seems to have been inspired by the artist’s knowledge of Camille Flammarion, a French writer who popularised Rosse’s vision. Flammarion described astronomical objects floating, as though ‘lost in the depths of the sky’, and was moved by the awe and terror they evoked ‘even in a cold engraving’.

‘Van Gogh wrote of a similar sense of wonder shortly before he painted Starry Night. He paints the night sky as though newly discovered astronomical phenomena could be seen with the naked eye, expanding human imagination and perception by lending the viewer ‘telescopic eyes’.’

Throughout the book, Dr Nasim describes a group of scientists who went to great lengths to pursue their study of the stars. John Herschel travelled as far as the Cape of Good Hope in search of clearer skies, while Wilhelm Tempel worked under poor conditions in a half-built and leaking observatory. “Some of Tempel’s ideas turned out to be quite wrong, and he died in isolation – but you see twentieth-century artists such as Max Ernst later paying homage to him,” said Dr Nasim.

From Observing by Hand to Observing by Light, Dr Nasim describes his next move: “My next book will deal with the effect of photography, from when it arrives in the 19th century, up until the 1930s. Nineteenth-century photography of the nebulae has been described as ‘the only modern achievement of photography’, and I’ll examine that claim.”

Observing By Hand: Sketching the Nebulae in the Nineteenth Century by Omar Nasim is available now from the University of Chicago Press.

For more information please contact Matt Pickles at the University of Oxford news office on 01865 280532 or [email protected]