Sunday, January 19, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: The Comet, 1789

A Return of the Comet is expected this Year and to be within our horizon from the month of Octr 1788 to Augt 1789 but is expected to be most -visible (if it forces itself upon our Notice).

"The Comet"
Aquatint by James Sayers, 1789
Version housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum
This aquatint (a printmaking technique like engraving wherein an acid is applied to a metal plate) is entitled “The Comet” and is the work of engraver James Sayers. A satirical piece, Sayers has placed in the composition the Prince of Wales at the time (later the Prince Regent, later still King George IV) at the head of the comet, notable contemporary characters make up its tail.

This piece was published in London by Thomas Cornell. Those pictured behind the future King George IV are: Edmund Burke, Sir Grey Cooper, Edward Stanley Smith the Twelfth Earl of Derby, Charles James Fox, Frederick North the Second Earl of Guilford, Thomas Powys the First Baron of Lilford, William John Kerr the Fifth Marquess of Lothian, David Murray the Second Earl of Mansfield, Charles Howard the Eleventh Duke of Norfolk, William Henry Cavendish Bentinck the Third Duke of Portland, William Douglas the Fourth Duke of Queensberry, Alexander Wedderburn the First Earl of Rosslyn (Lord Loughborough), John Montagu the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, John Sawbridge, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Warren, Richard Watson and Christopher Wilson.

To quote Homer Simpson, “Mmmmm…Fourth Earl of Sandwich.” As for the rest, well, they’re less delicious.

Another version of this piece, located at the V&A, is in the collection of The British Museum. So, what makes this so important that two major museums display it? What’s going on here?

The piece was produced during one of George III’s famous bouts of illness—leading to his famed madness. The King was not expected, at first, to recover and supporters of the randy Prince of Wales expected him to ascend the throne.  However, George III rallied and his eldest boy's followers found that they were no closer to the throne than ever.  Still, the Prince of Wales looked forward to surpassing his rickety father.  This is summed up visual in the drawing we see above.

A comet is cutting through the design diagonally and downwards from the right to the left. The comet’s head is that of the future King George IV surrounded by a star, while the tail contains the heads of his disappointed followers. Immediately after the Prince is the head of Richard Sheridan, with a gloomy expression. Behind him are James Fox, with a melancholy countenance, and an angry Duke of Portland.

After them comes the wig in back view of Lord Loughborough and a host of other disgruntled hangers-on. On the background is etched “A Return of the Comet” which appeared in 1761. The text reads:

A Return of the Comet is expected this Year and to be within our horizon from the month of Octr 1788 to Augt 1789 but is expected to be most -visible {if it forces itself upon our Notice) in the Winter months Febry & March ------ vide Dr Trusslers Almanack

By some of the ancient Astronomers Comets were deemed Meteors kindled in the Air and designed as Presages or unlucky Omens of some disastrous Catastrophe------

The Peripateticks deemed them not permanent Bodies but bodies newly produced and in a short Time to perish again, and affirmed that they were made up of Exhalations in the terrestrial Regions------

Sr Isaac Newton asserts That the Tail of a Comet is nothing else than a fine Vapour which the Head of the Comet emits by its heat that Heat the Comet receives from the Sun and the magnitude of the Tail is always proportional to the degree of heat which the Comet receives, and Comets which are nearest to the Sun have the longest Tails------' 18 February 1789

The version exhibited at The British Museum.


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