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Up up and away!

In previous posts I’ve hinted about some of the research I undertook a few years ago under the theme of early aeronautics. I know it seems a little bit different to the Anglo Saxon history I have been obsessing over for the past few months, but I am a bit of a research butterfly and will delve into random topics once I get my teeth into them.

I was reminded of ballooning over the weekend when an amazing person gave me this….

1823 Copper Farthing Token

1823 Copper Farthing Token

The date apparently makes this rather late for a token (1823) as tokens were outlawed after 1813. It may have been intended as an advertising medallion rather than a true token. I think it would have been a type of souvenir bought at aeronautic events. The obverse of the token shows a portrait of Issac Earlysman who shared the ascent with Charles Green, a famous 19th C aeronaut, with the inscription: ‘Ironmonger Bishopsgate London.’

The reverse shows two men in a hot air balloon with the word ‘Sparrow’ across its basket, with the inscription: ‘Ascended at Oxford June 23 1823.’

Here are some clearer images of the token:

Ironmonger Bishopsgate London on Obverse of 1823 TokenHot Air Balloon 'Sparrow' on Reverse of 1823 Token

I must admit I did squeal a bit when I was given the token! It made me remember all the research I did for my thesis! Charles Green was a particularly important figure in my work, and I amassed quite a few images of him. My preliminary research focused upon the use of the balloon as a symbol of Empire during the Victorian period and Charles Green, a Victorian scientific figure, was interesting to study through portraiture and caricatures of the period. The figure of the Victorian romantic, courageous aeronaut was a topic I focused on within a whole chapter.

John Hollins. A Consultation Prior to the Aerial Voyage to Weilburgh, 1836, 1836-1837, National Portrait Gallery, London. Oil, 147.3 x 206.4cm

John Hollins. A Consultation Prior to the Aerial Voyage to Weilburgh, 1836, 1836-1837, National Portrait Gallery, London. Oil, 147.3 x 206.4cm. Here On 7 November 1836, Thomas Green, the celebrated balloonist, Thomas Monck Mason, the author of Aeronautica, and Robert Holland, the lawyer and MP, made an important voyage from London to Weilburg in the well-known Vauxhall balloon.

The journey, a distance of about 480 miles, took 18 hours, a record not beaten for a voyage from England till 1907. Green, Mason and Holland appear in the portrait grouped together on the right as if discussing the intended voyage. On the left are Walter Prideaux and Sir William Milbourne James, lawyer friends of Holland who were interested in the project, and the artist John Hollins. The balloon, surrounded by figures, is seen in the distance.

Hilaire Ledru. Charles Green, 1835, National Portrait Gallery, London. Oil, 35.9 x 28.9cm

Hilaire Ledru. Charles Green, 1835, National Portrait Gallery, London. Oil, 35.9 x 28.9cm

In 1852 Henry Mayhew, an English journalist, rode in the celebrated Nassau balloon with Charles Green, a famous aeronaut, for Green’s 500th ascent. [1] His account (published in The Illustrated London News on the 18th September of the same year) depicts the euphoria experienced as he ascended into the skies of London. This account is typical for the period regarding its portrayal of the emotions experienced when ballooning: an intellectual delight in rising up into the air, a great sense of power and awe through the aerial view and the ability to gaze upon the view below in utter reflective silence.

“Even the least imaginative can feel the pleasure of beholding some broad landscape spread out like a bright-coloured carpet at their feet, and of looking down upon the world, as though they scanned it with an eagle’s eye. For it is an exquisite treat to all minds to find that they have the power, by their mere vision, of extending their consciousness to scenes and objects that are miles away; and as the intellect experiences a special delight in being able to comprehend all the minute particulars of a subject under one associate whole…so does the eye love to see the country.”[2]

Through ascending into the great expanse of the sky, the balloonist leaves the singular aspects of the environment and gains a rare perspective on the world which allows him or her to embrace the whole unified vision below.[3] The balloon allowed for a visual and perspectival transformation, giving the viewer the ability to take in a whole scene simultaneously and at 360 degrees. Mayhew, looking down on London sees the view before him as a “web”, a network, with details laid out like a great puzzle.[4] This, “craving” he describes, of wanting to see the “Great Metropolis” from above, from new, dizzying heights, was one shared by many Victorians. It was I will argue, not simply a desire to view the “city”, but also to view a wider geography, namely the empire.[5]

My research is currently held at the University of York, England.

[1] Although the actual number of ascents Green made may have acceded this at this point, with estimates ranging from 504 to 527 (Rolt, 1966: 132).

[2] Mayhew, 1862: 7.

[3] Nead, 2000: 79.

[4] Mayhew, 1862: 8.

[5] It is also important to note that ballooning was not just a profession for men. There were many women who dared to brave the skies. During the 1800s in particular, there were a number of women who were professional balloonists. These women often began ballooning in tandem with their husbands and later ascended solo. One of the most famous of these is Margaret Graham who ascended in the Victoria and Albert balloon at Vauxhall Gardens in 1850.

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