Friday, September 25, 2015

A chromatic view of the Earth

In his history of ballooning, Falling Upwards, Richard Holmes mentions 'the first aerial drawings ever made from a balloon basket'.  He is referring to the engravings accompanying Airopaidia (1785) by Thomas Baldwin, an account of a flight from Chester to Warrington.  In addition to a map of the route there are three of these, each of a different kind.  The most traditional (above) shows a view of the balloon itself, heading over the the Crag of Helsbye.  But this landscape is very different from the flattened prospect Baldwin observed from above, where the 'lofty Summit was apparently reduced to a common Level with the Valley made by the River Wever, and with the adjacent Sea Marsh.  Nor could it have been distinguished by a Stranger, as an Eminence.’

The 'Specimen of Balloon Geography' below gives an idea of what Baldwin actually saw from the balloon.  Having taken a map with him, he was surprised to see how different the landscape appeared, revealing for example the ‘incredible Variety of most beautiful Curves, into which the Stream had worked the Bed of the River Wever in a Course of Time’.  Altitude and a new perspective transformed the colours of familiar landmarks: the River Dee was the ‘Colour of red lead’ and Chester, thanks to its roof slates, appeared blue.  Sunlight on pits or ponds of water gave the ground the appearance of an inverted firmament.  Distance lent clarity to the scene below and reduced the landscape to a simplified range of primary colours.  ‘This unmixed Coloration of Objects, from a vertical Situation only, to be seen without Refraction, is a new singular and pleasing Phenomenon.  A View, taken above the Level of the Clouds, may, from this Circumstance, without Impropriety, be called a CHROMATIC VIEW of the Earth: of which, the Print is an Example.’

The final engraving is a curious circular image, slightly reminiscent of Dante's Paradiso.  There are instructions to the reader for viewing this, which might still work if you are looking at this blog post on a mobile device.  Lay it flat on a table and view it through a small opening made by rolling a piece of paper into a tube whilst shutting the other eye.  You will then 'form a very accurate Idea of the Manner, in which the Prospect below was represented gradually in Succession, to the Aironaut; whose Sight was bounded by a Circularity of Vapour.' 

The balloonist has 360 degrees to contemplate in a state of perfect calm and soothing silence.  One can look down at the landscape or around and above at the cloudscape.  Thomas Baldwin saw these choices in terms of the Beautiful and the Sublime, well established categories by this point (Edmund Burke's book on the subject had appeared in 1757).  Early in the voyage he writes of being unable to 'withstand the Temptation of indulging his Eye with a View of the glorious and enchanting Prospect.  But the Beautiful among the Objects below was still more attractive than the Sublime among those around.’  Later though he concludes that a balloon ride offers a synthesis: ‘the BEAUTIFUL and SUBLIME were seen united, in a Manner perfectly novel and engaging.'

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