An Image Interview with Frances Willmoth

John Flamsteed’s Atlas Coelestis (1729): plate 13 of 25

Can you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?

I am Dr Frances Willmoth. I have recently retired as Archivist at Jesus College, Cambridge, but retain an affiliation to the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge. A large part of my academic life has been involved with the careers of John Flamsteed (1646-1719), the first Astronomer Royal, and his patron Sir Jonas Moore (1618-1679).

Which picture have you chosen, and what does it show?

I have chosen a plate from Flamsteed’s posthumously published Atlas Coelestis (1729). It shows the constellation Monoceros – that is, the Unicorn – with Canis Major and Canis Minor.

Why have you chosen this image?

I’ve chosen something from the star atlas because the struggle to get it published had such a profound influence on the course of the last decade and a half of the astronomer’s life. This particular plate seems to me especially characterful, and artistically satisfying. The drafting of the artwork is credited to the well-known painter Sir James Thornhill.

How does this image resonate with you in the context of your work or research?

The chequered history of Flamsteed’s publications reflects the huge difficulty of publishing anything involving such enormous costs and technical challenges. The astronomer started a search for external funding for the publishing of his observations, star catalogue and atlas in the summer of 1703, by talking to one of the royal physicians and to Dr Martin Lister (FRS). His campaign eventually led to his securing a grant from Prince George of Denmark (Queen Anne’s consort). The subsequent unhappy history is well known, as the committee set up to supervise the expenditure disagreed with Flamsteed over how the project should be approached. The first edition of the Historia Coelestis (1712) was largely produced without the astronomer’s oversight and he rejected it as “spurious”. An extended second edition was not completed until 1725, some years after his death, and the star atlas even later.

Do you know anything about the making process of the image? 

Once the star positions had been established, the drafting of images for the plates was begun by one of Flamsteed’s observatory assistants, Thomas Weston. But he suffered from ill health and moved on in 1706 (becoming a schoolmaster in Greenwich). The connection of the finished plates with Thornhill dates from much later on, as a letter written by former Observatory assistant Crosthwait on 19 November 1720 reveals: “As to drawing the images … the famous Sir James Thornhill has undertaken this part, purely out of gratitude for favours formerly received from Mr Flamsteed”. In the previous decade Thornhill had spent a long time in Greenwich producing a spectacular decorative scheme for the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College. Flamsteed himself appears in one of those paintings, with an assistant and his most famous astronomical instrument, the mural arc.

                  We don’t know what sources Thornhill looked to when it came to drawing the images for the Atlas, though he undoubtedly already had a large stock of suitable models. We know more about the lengthy process of getting the plates engraved. This was funded by Mrs Flamsteed, and is described in a series of letters written by Crosthwait to Abraham Sharp (another former Observatory assistant, who prepared the northern and southern planispheres). In 1722 Crosthwait travelled to the Netherlands to see if he could get plates engraved there more cheaply than in London. Consequently four of them were engraved in Amsterdam (Aquarius, Gemini, Cetus and one other), though the quality of the work proved disappointing and the rest were produced in London; all were printed in London.

What significance does the image have for the historical understanding of the relationship between knowledge-making and image-making?

It shows up how inadequate it might be to simply describe such an image as a source of knowledge. At one level it was intended to have that role, accurately reflecting the positions of stars as laid down in Flamsteed’s star catalogue (1712 and 1725). But the Thornhill connection places the plates squarely in the domain of fine art, reflecting the fact that the volume was aimed at noblemen’s or gentlemen’s libraries, as much as a being a working tool for future astronomers.

Do you have any additional thoughts or comments on the image you would like to share?

One point that comes across clearly here is that (as is not uncommon in the history of science) an achievement notionally credited to a single person in fact relied on the substantial contributions made by a number of collaborators. Here one must credit not only Flamsteed himself, for having produced the data, but also: the persistence of his widow Margaret and his former assistant (and niece’s husband) James Hodgson, who appear as editors of the volumes; the assistance given gratis by two more former Observatory assistants, Sharp and Crosthwait; Weston and Thornhill; and several engravers and at least one printer.

*Frances Willmoth is also the author of the children’s book Astronomouse. Copies can be purchased in person at the Whipple Library in Cambridge.