Star-Gazing with Sidney Hall

One of the great things about working with the merchandising team at Gallery Direct is that I have crawled and crept through every corner of our enormous digital collection. It is such great fun to discover all the amazing images we have (that’s everyone’s idea of fun, right?). A few weeks ago, I came across yet another hidden gem in our historical holdings: a series of constellation engravings by nineteenth-century engraver Sidney Hall. 

“Virgo”

A couple months ago in my inaugural blog post, I revealed my quirky obsession with nineteenth-century maps. Apparently I’m not the only person with a penchant for geography, because our vintage maps section has since taken off. When these kinds of maps were growing in popularity, cartographers and engravers alike also turned their attention skywards, and began publishing what were referred to as “star atlases,” or celestial atlases.

Sidney Hall, a fairly successful British cartographer, begun his career by contributing engravings to popular international atlases. Around 1825, however, following the major success of Alexander Jamieson’s Celestial Atlas, published in 1822, Hall was asked to created a set of 32 engravings depicting the sky’s constellations. Published as a set of cards under the title Urania’s Minor or A View of the Heavens, Hall created two editions of the cards, the later of which, released in 1833, have become iconic interpretations of the skies above.

“Cancer”

Hall’s engravings were accompanied by a text by Jehoshaphat Aspin, A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy. The cards served the dual purpose of illustrating the text, as well as serving as practical astronomical tools for consumers. In addition to the illustrations of figures and animals that Hall uses to depict the constellations, he accurately places the actual stars along the constellation lines. What’s more, the manufacturers of the cards punched small holes where the stars are represented to allow light to come through.

“Gemini,” with visible star holes.

This allowed for two things for people interested in the night sky: one could hold the card up in the air to properly locate and align the constellations, or project a shadow of the constellation onto a surface by holding the card up to a light. The card above, showing the twin stars, Castor and Pollux, commonly referred to as Gemini, gives a clear view of the star holes inserted into the cards.

I love learning about how our predecessors conceived and thought about the world around them. Looking at maps and celestial atlases is a great way to get a glimpse into how conceptions of the world were changing with innovations in transportation, communication, and industry.

In addition to the nerdy, historical aspects, I think these cards make awesome pieces for wall art. A close friend of mine just had a baby in early August, so I’m thinking for the baby’s first birthday, I’m going to have the “Leo” constellation printed on birchwood for the her room in honor of her astrological sign.

“Leo Major and Leo Minor”

So, what’s your sign?

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