The Starry Messenger: two rare books head to Wales for a day in the limelight
Last week I travelled down to Cardiff, along with two 19th century books from our collections, to take part in what promised to be a very interesting event. This brief time in Cardiff brought me into contact with some wonderful artists, scientists and hobbyists and left me with a day that I won’t soon forget.
Earlier in the year I had been contacted by MOSTYN and Oriel Davies Gallery who are in charge of curating Bedwyr Williams’ entry in to this year’s Venice Biennale. Bedwyr’s exhibition, entitled The Starry Messenger, with the support of the Arts Council of Wales, is slated to show at the Ludoteca Santa Maria Ausiliatrice for the duration of the Biennale.
Bedwyr’s exhibition will explore the act of observing the observer:
“The astronomer is stood in the window in a kind of half trance because he is getting a buzz from seeing his observatory with a starry night above it. So even though whilst he should be in there looking into the eyepiece breathing noisily through his nose chomping on the eyepiece with his baggy eye he’s actually getting some pleasure from looking at his hobby. The brochure he had thumbed for months showed a scene not unlike this. This man is observing his observatory.”
Extract from, ‘The Astronomer’, by Bedwyr Williams, Performance Text, 2012.
As a precursor to this exhibition, and perhaps to provide some context and inspiration, Bedwyr and his team organized a one-day convention in Cardiff that would provide a platform for artistic and enthusiastic exchange between amateur astronomers, artists, scientists and, in my case, librarians.
Bedwyr and his organizing team, including Sean Edwards (Johnstown Company) and chair of the day Russell Roberts (University of Wales, Newport), brought together amateur astronomers Moelwyn Thomas (astrophotography) and Phil Shepherdson (who built his one telescope out of bean tins), artists Tom Goddard (performance artist), Fern Thomas and Geraint Davies , Dr Hayley Gomez (Cardiff) and myself! The day was also interspersed with videos of amateur experiments (my favourite was an iPhone attached to a weather balloon) and of some inspirational words by Richard Fennyman. The event took place in the atmospheric Oakdale Workmen’s Institute (left)on the grounds of St Fagans National History Museum.
Bedwyr and his team had come across my blog post for Week 6 of our “52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations” thread while looking around for information about James Nasmyth. After some initial discussions, I agreed to come to Cardiff for this convention to talk about Nasmyth and Carpenter’s The Moon and also to bring the first (1874) and third (1885) editions of the book with me.
I gave a quick talk to contextualize how these books were made and what kind of person James Nasmyth was, but the real electric moments came after my presentation.
I had about 20 minutes in which I invited anyone from the audience to come up on stage and gather around these books and to get in touch with these wonderful images. The audience for this event was a mixture of artists, scientists and members of the public, and as people crowded around these books and asked some enthusiastic and inspired questions the day really came alive for me.
It is this initial connection, the visceral realization that you see come across a reader’s face as they realize they are handling something that was crafted hundreds of years ago by people who had the same inspirations as themselves, that makes my job as a librarian so rewarding. What made this presentation even more rewarding was the fact that Nasmyth’s 20 inch telescope (which he built himself and conducted his observations of the Moon with) sits in the same gallery of the Science Museum as Phil Shepherdson’s bean-tin telescope.
As a spectator I also got to enjoy the wonderful talks by the day’s speakers. I took special inspiration from the first two speakers, Moelwyn and Phil. Their passion for their hobby and their ability to construct telescopes and cheap astrophotography rigs was amazing. The artists of the day were able to provide some contextualization to what the amateurs and professionals presented on, and the videos strung the day together with equal parts of inspirational projects and awe-inspiring images.
Overall, this was a wonderful day that I’m glad that I was asked to take part in. Meeting Bedwyr and engaging with artists, scientists (both amateur and professional) and the public over these books was exciting and rewarding. Many thanks to Carwyn Evans who produced a photographic record of the day, many of his images appear in this post. It will be interesting to see how Bedwyr Williams’ exhibition at the Biennale responds to these presentations and to see what form it will take, best of luck to him!