5 January 1786
Thomas Baldwin's "Balloon Excursion from Chester, on the eighth of September, 1785." Baldwin had earlier been unable to fund by subscription the construction of a balloon (Thébaud-Sorger 47). On this occasion he was assisted by Lunardi, who provided the balloon, prepared it for flight, and was on hand for the ascent from Chester.
This image highlighted the sublime nature of aerial views. The effect is accentuated by the inclusion of the clouds which partly blocked Baldwin’s view of the ground beneath him.
Baldwin describes this image variously as a "Chromatic View," "Specimen of Balloon Geography," and "Balloon Prospect" "of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aërial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu' the Air") (i, iv). The unprecedented subject of the design emerges in the play between these three descriptors and the tripartite "object" they are attempting to define.
The first descriptor draws our attention to the prominent, structuring role played by colour in an aerial view. In a conventional prospect, objects are distinguished primarily by their form; yet as Baldwin remarks, when seen from the air "All was Colouring: no Outline: yet each Appearance curiously defined by a striking Contrast of simple Colours, which served to distinguish the respective Boundaries with most exact Precision and inconceivable Elegance" (174). From this point of view, the primary subjects of the image are Baldwin's aerial view of the earth's surface; the chromatic, apparently two-dimensional forms inscribed on that surface; and (when viewed in the context of Airopaidia) the way in which those forms can be read.
The chromatic view provides the data for "Balloon Geography," a "new System"that will improve the accuracy of maps and decrease the time needed to make them. As Baldwin explains, the cartographer's "[d]rawings" will be made "by SIGHT, from the Car of a Balloon with a Camera Obscura, aided by a Micrometer applied to the under Side of the transparent Glass" (133). This is the moment when aerial photography is born—and the image we are considering is its first specimen. The subject of the image accordingly shifts from the present to possible future-applications of balloon technology.
To this point our attention has been focused on the "flattened" surface of the earth. With the third descriptor, it shifts to the world between that nether-limit and the balloon, formed by the constantly-changing relations between earth/water and cloud/air, through which the balloon/observer is moving. The subject of the image therefore shifts once again—from the balloonist's new view of the old world, to the New World in which he is immersed. "A Balloon Prospect from Above the Clouds" therefore also takes as its implicit subject the question of how best to represent this second world, and of what aesthetic categories might be adequate to a visual spectacle that unfolds in the play between environment, ungrounded observer, and a new technology.
In this view of parts of Cheshire and Lancashire, as if seen from the car of a balloon sailing far above them, the familiar has become strange. In contrast to more conventional prospects, we are looking down at the earth rather than out to the horizon; and from this perspective the view comprises four, relatively flat, horizontal layers, all lying parallel to the surface of the page.
The first layer, lying some distance below the balloon, is marked by numerous white-and-grey clouds, of various sizes and shapes, that reach up towards us, as if they were the tops of wooly, floating mountains. They seem playfully to frame and reframe the surface of the earth far below. Clustering near them are patches of deep blue, a representation perhaps of "the blue Fields of Air" described by Baldwin (147).
In contrast to the buoyant forms of the clouds, the earth seems to have been flattened. Its once striking features—hills, cliffs, trees, forests, villages, churches, and so on—are now little more than abstract patterns on a mottled, dark-green canvas. As Baldwin remarks in astonishment, "Helsbye-Hill, tho' upwards of 600 feet high, appeared from the car of the balloon, to be on the same level with the grounds below"; and, writing of Chester, "The Whole had a beautiful and rich Look; not like a Model, but a coloured Map" (Airopaidia 78, 43).
The only terrestrial element to avoid this fate are the rivers, which seem to occupy an intermediate zone, midway between the layers of earth and cloud. In Sketches and Hints Humphry Repton notes that because water reflects light "like a mirror," bodies of water often seem closer to us than they are in reality (Repton 33). Perhaps to simulate this effect, the rivers in this prospect (which, Baldwin reports, when viewed above appear to be coloured red (Airopaidia 41-2, 106-7, 147, 173-4)) have been painted a light pink, which seems to raise them above the heavy dark-green canvas, as if they were claiming kinship with the clouds. These remarkable forms reach across the flattened landscape in long serpentine lines, almost as if they were living members of the prospect. Their "Doublings," as Baldwin notes, are "so various and fantastic as to exceed the Limits of Credibility" (144). On occasion they seem even to reach up over the edge of the clouds before plunging through them back to the earth below. And although this optical illusion can easily be explained—a cloud is thinnest and therefore most transparent on its margins; we are really seeing through the cloud to the river below—the visual effect is nevertheless striking.
The fourth layer is akin to a transparent sheet, placed somewhere between Baldwin and the layer of clouds beneath him, on which the wandering path of the balloon, represented by a continuous black line, has been inscribed. Blown by the wind, its meandering path variously recalls the serpentine tracks of the rivers and the wooly outlines of the clouds. Rather than standing safely outside this aerial prospect, the artist is immersed within it, completing our picture of a scene formed, and then reformed again and again, by the constantly changing relations between earth/water, cloud/air, light, and moving-observer.
This transparency is supplemented by an "Explanatory Print," placed alongside "A Balloon Prospect" in Airopaidia, which functions as if it were a second transparency, intended to be placed over the design as a whole. Where the first transparency tracks Baldwin's movements inside a constantly-changing visual environment; the second locates the same movements, and the aerial places he explores, in relation to a more familiar environment, glimpsed only on the outskirts of the first, which is conjured by the names Chester, Helsbye, Frodsham Bridge, Rixton Moss, the River Mersey, and so on.
This complex visual ensemble is completed with Baldwin's instructions about how viewer and picture ought to be positioned in relation to each other, and with his suggestion of an alternate frame for the design:
N.B. The Circular View is seen to the best Advantage, when placed flat on a Table or Chair, and rather in the Shade: the Eye looking directly down upon the Picture.
Whoever will be at the Trouble of viewing distinct Parts of the Balloon-Prospect, throu' a very small Opening, made by rolling a Sheet of Paper into the Form of a hollow Tube, and applying it close to either Eye, at the same Time shutting the other . . . may form a very accurate Idea of the Manner, in which the Prospect below was represented gradually in Succession, to the Aironaut; whose Sight was bounded by a circularity of Vapour . . . (Airopaidia V)
This image is one of the two earliest pictorial-views taken from the car of a balloon—the other is Baldwin's "A View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation" (Thébaud-Sorger 47). In this context, its significance derives from its pioneering attempt to represent this aerial world, in such a way that its elements could be comprehended and its shifting "landscapes" vicariously experienced by the viewer.
More broadly, "A Balloon Prospect from Above the Clouds" can be aligned with schools of thought that are usually placed in opposition to each other. On the one hand it is a product of Enlightenment reason, which attempts carefully to document, and then direct to practical ends, the novel view of the earth afforded by the balloon. This aspect is most clearly visible when the Prospect is placed alongside "The Explanatory Print," and our experience of the new is coordinated with what we already know.
On the other hand, the image's multiple interacting planes, coupled with the meandering track of the balloon, anticipate the interest in embodied observers, transitory optical phenomena, and networks of relations, that is commonly associated with Romanticism. Baldwin's advice on how viewer and picture ought to be positioned in relation to each other, and his suggestion of an alternate frame for the design, foreground this second aspect of "A Balloon Prospect." Here the new experience offered by the Balloon threatens radically to revise the static world assumed by the first. As Holmes writes, "[t]he early aeronauts suddenly saw the earth [and, we can add, the atmosphere as well] as a giant organism, mysteriously patterned and unfolding, like a living creature" (Holmes 161).
But rather than attempting to decide which of these aspects of Baldwin's "Balloon Prospect" is subordinate to the other, it can be argued that this is a transitional work, which provides a unique view of the transition from Enlightenment to Romanticism.
This image functions as an overview and step-by-step record of Baldwin's balloon-journey from Chester to Rixton Moss, and as a synoptic-dynamic study of the cloudscape/landscape he traversed. In the context of Airopaidia, it also functions as an advertisement for "Balloon Geography"; an illustration of the chromatic foundations of the aerial view; and as contrary to "The Balloon over Helsybe Hill in Cheshire" (each design adopts a point of view visible only on the margins of the other).
Baldwin's "Balloon Excursion" began in Chester, Cheshire, England (on the River Dee). Warrington, Lancashire, England is five miles from Rixton Moss, where the "Balloon Excursion" ended (Airopaidia 152).
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