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Photographs by Charles Piazzi Smyth

Photographs by Charles Piazzi Smyth

Sir John Herschel had just returned from several years of astronomical work at the Cape of Good Hope when the invention of photography was announced and he began his series of photographic experiments of 1839-44. It is appropriate that the young astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), his protégé and the son of his friend W. H. Smyth, should have introduced photography to South Africa. Remaining as an assistant at the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, he took up Talbot's refined process the calotype in 1842, and made some adaptations to the procedure, to render it more suitable to the climate. The earliest photographs to have been taken in South Africa are thus by Smyth; and the earliest surviving examples of these are not in South Africa, they are in one of the scrapbooks of John Lee, of Hartwell House, a friend of Herschel and the Smyths (11894).

It is interesting (now and then) to see failures as well as successes, and the first two photographs, sent to Lee by Smyth's mother in January 1843, are completely obliterated. Lee's captions carefully written beneath indicate that they originally showed views of the Royal Observatory and Magnetic Observatory buildings and setting, even including a figure 'Mr Mann'. That they decayed very quickly and perhaps showed signs of instability from the start is suggested by the existence of a contemporary tissue interleaf tipped in to protect them. Their rapid deterioration was doubtless why Smyth himself, on a visit to England about a year later, in February 1843, added and annotated four similar but entirely successful photographs, ten pages further on.

They consist of small salted paper prints of two views of the imposing Royal Observatory building, the premier British observatory in the southern hemisphere; one view of the range of buildings and instrument shelters nearby that formed the Magnetic Observatory; and one a rare interior showing Smyth's 'drawing room' at the Observatory, with his desk and drawing instruments centre and a tripod-mounted, Dollond-type refracting telescope placed beyond it, also at the centre. The latter image is surprisingly good, presumably after long exposure. Smyth's gathering of the props at the centre suggests he expected the low lighting to have a vignetting effect, surrounding them with gloom, though it does not.

These are followed by a fifth photograph, presumably added shortly afterwards, as it is presented differently (trimmed and mounted) and shows another version of the Magnetic Observatory buildings view, very similar - but superior - to that in the group preceding. These may both be versions, more or less, of the obliterated view, captioned by Lee as 'Anemometer. House. / Devils Berg / Magnetic Observatory / Intensity House'. The Magnetic Observatory was newly built in 1842, and was of special interest to Smyth's friends back in England as it represented a project that Herschel, with his friend Samuel Christie (see narrative to 69245), promoted after his return, to get the British government to fund and equip systematic observations of terrestrial magnetism in the colonies.

Charles Piazzi Smyth shared the artistic talents as well as the astronomical interests of his family. Original drawings for W. H. Smyth's famous book A Cycle of Celestial Objects - one of the foundation stones of the Victorian fashion for amateur astronomy - were done by Mrs Annarella Smyth and their daughters. Some of these are to be found along with the Cape of Good Hope photographs in Lee's astronomical scrapbook (11894), and other pieces of Smyth family artwork in his larger and more miscellaneous commonplace books (11892, 11893). A striking self-portrait of Charles Piazzi Smyth dated 1848 is one of the highlights of the latter (folio 115r).

His later uses of photography show similar originality and flair. To record his 1856 astronomical expedition and high-altitude experiments at Teneriffe he took stereoscopic photographs. The resulting book published in 1858 (13006) is illustrated with 20 actual stereoscopic albumen prints, the first attempt (and until recently one of the few) to equip an ordinary book with three-dimensional illustrations. They are awkward to view of course, and not perhaps to the modern eye as faithful and realistic as Smyth seems to have thought they were. But they indicate the bold and novel possibilities that early enthusiasts like Smyth perceived in photography.

A later project was an extensive photographic record of cloud forms. His book Madeira Spectroscopic, 1882 (13005), contains a drawing by Smyth reproduced as a woodburytype. Less congenial to some of his scientific colleagues was his interest in the Great Pyramid. He resigned from the Royal Society because they refused to let him present a paper on the subject. It was illustrated with photographs of course, including of the pyramid's interior.

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