James Nasmyth’s “Moon” images, 1874

Friday 19 July 2019

Tomorrow (20 July) marks the 50th anniversary of the first humans landing on the Moon in 1969 as part of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar mission. Human fascination with the moon and mapping the stars goes back millennia. The following blog post, first published as part of the 52 Weeks of Inspiring Illustrations series back in 2012, focuses on one of the first books to feature photographs of the Moon’s surface, or does it?  

For more works on astronomical observation, particularly in the 17th century take a look at our other blogs: “How to discover a planet” and “The heavens, according to Johannes Hevelius“. 

Plate XXII from the first edition (1874) of James Nasmyth’s The moon.
James Nasmyth, c. 1877, from Men of Mark by Lock and Whitfield  (Photo CT782.C7).

This week’s illustration post brings together two wonders of the 19th century industrial imagination: amateur astronomy and photography. Photography had become successful and popular by the mid-19th century both professionally and amongst “gentleman scientists” looking to add to and make their mark on popular knowledge. James Nasmyth was such a man: he showed an early competency for mechanics, set up his own foundry, designed and patented the steam hammer and other machines and retired at the age of 48 to Kent to pursue his hobby of astronomy.

Once retired Nasmyth, as an industrial gentleman of the steam age, built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope (now on display at the Science Museum in London) and joined the ranks of Democritus, da Vinci, Galileo and Johannes Hevelius as an amateur selenographer. Thus he embarked on a series of lunar observations which finally culminated in the 1874 publication of a work by him and James Carpenter entitled The moon: considered as a planet, a world, and a satellite (London, John Murray).

From left to right: the front cover, title page and Plate IV from the first edition (1874) of James Nasmyth’s The moon.
Plate III from the first edition, a copy of a lunar photograph by Warren De la Rue.

This work was advertised as including “twenty-four illustrative plates of lunar objects” and was significant as it was one of the first books to feature photographs of the Moon’s surface, or so it seems! Astrophotography had its beginnings in the 1840s (with the first photograph of the Moon being a daguerreotype by John W. Draper that took over a half-an-hour to expose) but by the 1870s there was no photographic process in place to capture the details of the lunar surface that Nasmyth and Carpenter were observing. So this pair of enterprising gentlemen set forth and built a series of plaster models based on their observations, lit them with raking light and produced photographic illustrations for their book. In fact, in the whole of their book there is only one photograph of the actual Moon, which was taken by Warren De la Rue (Plate III of the first edition, right).

Plate IX from the first edition (1874) of The moon, by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter.
Plate XVII from the first edition (1874) of The moon, by James Nasmyth and James Carpenter.

The illustrative plates of this first edition of The moon employ multiple different types of illustrative and early photographic reproduction techniques: engravings, woodburytypes and heliotypes (a type of collotype). These new photo-mechanical printing techniques allowed a more standard print process using permanent carbon-based inks and stream-lined the production of photographically illustrated books.

Plate XXIII from the first edition (1874) of The moon, a Heliotype of an ‘ideal lunar landscape’.

This process truly underlines photography’s basic characteristic of being a construct (in this instance twice over!) and very much an act of interpretation which can sometimes be far from the truth. This is illustrated even furthermore by the third edition of this work which can now also be found in our Photographic Books Collection. Many of the images which appear as heliotypes in the first edition are instead reproduced here as woodburytypes and show significant amounts of touching-up and repositioning. For example: Plate II from the first edition has instead been divided up into Plates II and III in the third edition (possibly due to the third edition’s smaller size), and both of these images along with Plate XIX (XVIII in the third edition) have been cleaned up considerably (see below).

An example of the editing of images from the first edition (1874) and the third edition (1885) of James Nasmyth’s The moon. The first edition (above) combines both photographs as one plate, a Heliotype. The third edition (below) separates each photograph onto its own plate, inverts both images and are printed as woodburytypes.

This is a fascinating book by an industrious pair of “gentlemen astronomers,” and even more so when the first and third edition are compared. Unfortunately, the Library does not currently have the second edition (translated into German, printed in Leipzig) to further comparison, but it could soon be a new addition to our collections!

Daryl Green
Former Rare Books Librarian

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