Inspired by the Stars

This year sees the return of Inspired by to Morley Gallery. The competition is in partnership with the Victoria and Albert Museum, seeks to inspire all adult learners across the country to create a piece of art or craft inspired by the V&A collection. With the closing date drawing near we ask Morley Gallery manager Jane Hartwell to share what inspires her in the collection.

The item I have selected as my inspiration is a sampler. A sampler is a piece of embroidery that shows samples of stitches and patterns and served as a reference to the embroiderer. In Europe in the 17th century to make a sampler was often part of a girl’s education but became more than simply recording or showing off needlework skills and by the 18th century also demonstrated knowledge. This sampler dated 1811, by an unknown needlewoman, is a rare example of astronomy which shows the planets of the solar system, their relationship to the sun and the ‘Orbit of the Comet’. This piece captured my imagination and led me to find out more.

The sample, The Solar System. Credit V&A MuseumSampler The Solar System

There was an extraordinary burst of amateur interest and professional research into astronomy in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it is almost without doubt that the comet referred to in this piece is the Great Comet of 1811, formally designated C/1811 F1, which was visible to the eye for about 260 days with an extraordinary tail. It inspired artists and writers alike and can be seen in works by John Linnell and William Blake, it was referred to by Harriet Martineau and notably featured in Tolstoy’s War and Peace as a portent of all kind of woes and the end of the world. More commonly it was thought to herald Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. 1811 was a particularly good year for wine making and merchants sold ‘Comet’ wine at high prices for several years afterwards.

I was interested to find that the astronomer, Caroline Herschel, working with her brother William Herschel, discovered and mapped many comets and although she did not discover the 1811 comet, she made valuable drawings of the 1811 comet’s entire anatomy, including its centre of condensation and even its nucleus. Caroline used graphite to suggest the comet’s diaphanous coma and tail, and pen and ink to outline its head and nucleus.

Her work was exceptional and was recognised in 1787 when she received the first professional salary ever paid to a woman scientist in Britain! She was also the first woman to discover a comet, and her work also led to a moon crater and an asteroid being named after her.

Caroline and her brother William revolutionised the concept of the universe from a Newtonian one of God as the great clockmaker watching over its movements, to a more modern view of evolution.

Become inspired by the V&A Collection for yourself and enter the Inspired by competition. Closing date for entries in Friday 11 March.

Quotes, sources and references:

  • 1, 2, 3 Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena, INSAP7, Bath, 2010 
  • Publication: Culture and Cosmos, Vol. 16, nos. 1 and 2, 2012
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, a history of samplers
  • The Comets of Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), Sleuth of the Skies at Slough
  • Roberta J. M. Olson1 and Jay M. Pasachoff2
  • The Great Comet of 1811, “Napoleon’s Comet” Published July 10, 2013, by George Bishop
  • Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Sampler and Great Comet of 1811

With the closing date for Inspired by drawing near we ask Morley Gallery manager Jane Hartwell to share what inspires her from the V&A Collection.


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