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Few cultural phenomena captured the popular imagination of late eighteenth-century Britain more intensely than the rage for air ballooning, or the “balloonomania” as critics sometimes called it. “The term balloon is not only in the mouth of every one, but all our world seems to be in the clouds,” declared a 1785 book titled London Unmask’d (137). The excitement had begun in France when the Montgolfier brothers launched the first human flight in front of the Royal Family and 100,000 spectators, on October 15, 1783. The first flight in England, by Vincento Lunardi the following September, attracted an estimated 150,000 spectators. The Morning Post reported that “St. Paul’s Cathedral took the advantage of Lunardi’s Balloon excursion, by raising the price, which used to be only twopence for going to the top, to two shillings, and both the galleries had a great number of spectators, many of whom in the stone gallery fell down the recesses and broke their shins, as they were walking round and gazing at the Balloon” (Sept. 23, 1784).
Ballooning’s ability to draw such huge audiences was doubled by its radical heterogeneity as a form of visual culture, from the legimate ascents of serious aeronauts, as they were called, to the more dubious efforts of opportunistic showmen such as Mr. Uncles, who proposed to ascend in a balloon that would be steered by four trained eagles in front of a paying audience at Ranelagh, to various forms of lavish indoor displays. Betsy Sheridan dutifully waited in line to see Lunardi’s famous balloon at the Pantheon during a trip to London the month after his ascent. There she saw it “suspended to the Top of the Dome,” carrying “Lunardi, and his poor fellow travelers the Dog and Cat” who had accompanied him and “who still remained in the Gallery to receive the visits of the curious” (24). These sorts of relatively straightforward exhibits, in which spectators were invited to witness firsthand the balloon and the travellers it had carried, were doubled by other displays that had more to do with fashionable sociability than anything that could be aligned with science. A masquerade at the Pantheon three months later was “elegantly illuminated and embellished with the appendage of Lunardi’s balloon” (MP February 9, 1785). Yet another masquerade four months after that combined decorations “representing the Grand Saloon of the Doge of Venice, decorated and ornamented in the most elegant taste” with “the BALLOON, [which] will likewise be suspended, with the Gallery and the whole of the apparatus” (MP June 6, 1785).
This spectatorial appeal carried over into an equally strong fascination with the representation of ballooning across a range of genres, from watercolour paintings that captured the grandeur of these flights, to heroic portraits of the areonauts themselves, to endless satirical prints that either focussed on ballooning directly or incorporated references to ballooning as part of their ironic account of other social issues. A series of at least twelve watercolour paintings by George Woodward, several of which depicted Lunardi’s various ascents, conveyed the visual magnificence as well as the heroic aura of the early flights, but predictably, the satirical sketches emphasized ballooning’s immersion within the perceived excesses and distractions of commerce and fashion. Running through all of this was a widely shared sense that ballooning’s appeal reflected the paradoxes that characterized people’s more fundamental experience of modernity. Lavishly decorated but hollow, bouyant but rudderless, an emblem of the Enlightenment’s thirst for knowledge and a focus for the worst excesses of consumerism, balloons circulated as an emblem of the most deeply rooted tensions of the age. Horace Walpole’s sarcastic description of them as “philosophical playthings” evoked this sense of ambivalence perfectly, but as Walpole also recognized, this did little do diminish the strength of ballooning’s extraordinary appeal within the world of Romantic visual culture.
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