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Senate House Library

Weather Notes: Works of Art and Nature


Written by
Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian: History, Co-Curator of Weather Notes

We take a closer look at our collections featured in the exhibition 'Weather Notes', part of the new 'A Thousand Words for Weather' installation

Alongside Artangel’s audio installation A Thousand Words for Weather, the new exhibition Weather Notes spotlights historical items chosen from Senate House Library’s collections, that offer a glimpse into different perceptions, recordings, and observations about the weather over the past 500 years. In this new blog series, we will explore items throughout Senate House Library’s collection’s that touch on the themes explored in the exhibition and the installation more broadly.

A coloured map depicting a green countryside landscape with clouds and a river from an aerial view

Aerial Views

When visitors enter Senate House Library’s exhibition space, the first item they encounter is a book with a coloured fold-out page. The fold-out contains a map of the city of Chester and its surrounding landscape, partially shrouded by spots of clouds. If you look closely, you can see a thin black line squiggling across the page. The line traces the balloon voyage of amateur scientist Thomas Baldwin between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss on 8 September 1785. The map is one of the first known British book illustrations that attempted to present this type of aerial view, the world as seen from above journeying in an air balloon.

Illustration and title page of the pamphlet ‘The air balloon: or a treatise on the aerostatic globe’ (London: printed for G. Kearsley, 1783)

All the World in the Clouds

The map is part of the book Airopaidia, published in 1786. Senate House Library’s copy comes from the Porteus Library, the working library of Beilby Porteus (1731–1809), who became Bishop of London in 1787. On its half-title page, the book bears the inscription ‘From the author’, indicating that Porteus may have received the book from Thomas Baldwin directly. There are not many other works on ballooning to be found in the collection, besides a short educational science pamphlet titled The air balloon: or a treatise on the aerostatic globe. Despite these casual appearances in one collection, the two printed works hint at the widespread interest in balloons and ballooning in the late 18th century.

An illustration showing an air balloon followed by the title of broadside ballad ‘Garnerin's balloon’

Thomas Baldwin was one of many who became obsessed with balloon voyages during a surge of ‘balloon madness’ at the time. Airopaidia was published when balloons were everywhere – they were the subject of anything from public demonstrations, theatre plays and songs to newspapers articles and scientific treatises. Most of the attention focussed on a series of ascents in air balloons performed by aeronauts across Britain. While entertainment value was an important feature of ballooning demonstrations, air voyages were also used for scientific reporting and experimentation. Airopaidia extensively catalogues a myriad of observations made by its author during the flight, including the changes in temperature, atmosphere and sensations he experienced. One of Baldwin’s most unusual experiments is testing the taste of pepper, salt and ginger in the air and finding that they “retain their usual Pungency: contrary to what Travellers have reported to happen on the Peak of Teneriffe”. Balloon voyages were considered opportunities to combine new experiences with gaining new knowledge.

A Work of Art and Science

Baldwin also aimed to translate the new knowledge he gathered into colour. Like other aeronauts before him, he was struck by the differences and intensities in colour as seen from the air. The river Dee is described as having the colour of “red Lead”, the City of Chester becomes “entirely blue” (his emphasis), and the sun’s “rays of a golden Colour” dye the clouds he flies past in “the Colour of Blood”. The accompanying hand-coloured illustrations translate some of this new colour scheme for Airopaidia’s readers to experience for themselves.

Foldout illustration showing a aerial view of Chester viewed from an air balloon

While the text attempts to maintain an empirical tone in the vein of scientific observation, there are times when it displays far more literary characteristics. Baldwin also uses his published account to recall the joy and awe inspired in him as the balloon brings him closer to the skies in passages such as these:

"... what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty! look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a Span by the new perspective, diminished almost beyond the Bounds of Credibility"

Airopaidia wished to convey to readers the excitement of the new discoveries. Infusing accounts of balloon voyages with literary language was an important part of transmitting not only the new sights, but the feelings and emotions associated with them. Its blend of scientific and literary language along with its innovative illustrations demonstrate how we interact with and understand our environment not only through the empirical, observational lens but also through the lens of language and art. Like the audio installation, the book embodies the new perspectives made possibly by the fusion of the arts, humanities and the sciences.

If you want to learn more about the objects on display in Weather Notes, view them in our online gallery.