Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
Andrew Graham-Dixon Art critic, journalist, TV presenter, author, lecturer and educationalist.
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ITP 42: The Face of the Moon, by John Russell

Date: 04-02-2001
Owning Institution: Soho House, Birmingham
Publication: Sunday Telegraph "In The Picture"
Subject: 18th Century

Tomorrow marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Apollo 14 moon landing so this week’s picture is John Russell’s large pastel drawing of The Face of the Moon. This painstakingly accurate depiction of a “gibbous” (or more than half) moon, as seen through a telescope, dates from about 1795. The most faithful early representation of the lunar sphere, it hangs - appropriately - in Soho House in Birmingham, former home of the engineer Matthew Boulton and preferred meeting place of the Lunar Society, the greatest provincial philosophical society in eighteenth-century England. Russell, who lived and worked in London, was not himself one of the “Lunatics”, as Lunar Society members called themselves, but he was certainly familiar with their multifarious investigations into chemistry, physics, mechanics and astronomy; and few images speak more eloquently of the enquiring spirit of Enlightenment England than his startlingly clear-eyed picture of the pocked and cratered moon.

Russell was not a scientist by profession but a highly fashionable portraitist. He specialised in pastel, demonstrating a particular fondness for dramatic contrasts of light and shade. Thanks to the patronage of George III, the artist was able to style himself “Painter to the King and Prince of Wales”, but his finest portraits were of leading scientists: William Herschel, the royal astronomer, shown brandishing a stellar chart proving his discovery of Uranus, the so-called “Georgian planet”, Uranus; or the explorer Joseph Banks, whom the artist depicted by candlelight, looking up from one of Russell’s own “lunar maps” with an expression of great animation on his face, as if caught by the dream of one day mounting an expedition to the moon.

Russell’s interest in astronomy began when he was around twenty years old, as he explained in a letter of February 19, 1789, to Dr Thomas Hornby, Observor of the Radcliffe Observatory at Oxford:

“About twenty-five years since, I first saw the Moon through a telescope, which I now recollect must have been about two Days after the first quarter; you will conclude how much struck a young Man conversant with Light, and Shade, must be with the Moon in this state… a few Days after I made a small Drawing, but the Moon being at the Full, I was not struck in the same manner, and I made no more attempts, till an accidental possession of a powerful Glass awakened my attention to this beautiful Object once more, and for several years I have lost few opportunities when the Atmosphere has exhibited the Object of my study and imitation.”

Russell went on to explain that he had been much encouraged by the inadequacy of most previous experiments in lunar mapping, which he believed had led men into error. On the basis of earlier, inaccurate representations, he felt for example that “it was too hastily concluded that the large dark parts on the Moon’s Face, were Seas”. Unlike previous moon-mappers, he had mastered the technique of chiaroscuro, or the manipulation of light and shade, in serving to indicate surface texture. So it was, he concluded, that he had decided to produce “a Drawing in some measure corresponding to the Feelings I had upon the first sight of the gibbous Moon through a Telescope.”

As Russell studied the moon through the powerful telescope that had come into his “accidental possession” - obtained in fact from one of his grateful sitters, the royal astronomer Herschel, some time after 1782 - he made numerous preparatory pencil sketches. Some are fanciful depictions of areas of the moon’s surface so small that even under extreme magnification the artist could not be entirely sure of what he saw. In one such study he has elaborated an ambiguous lunar rock formation into the shape of a gigantic figure with wings, like an angel (a fancy which may perhaps be explained by Russell’s extreme and, by all accounts, ferocious piety, a consequence of his early conversion to Methodism). There is however no trace of such curious imaginings in The Face of the Moon, characterised as it is by an unblinking documentary fidelity.

“Painted from nature,” declares an inscription written by the artist along the bottom edge of the picture. In fact Russell made one or two judicious adjustments to nature in order to place his subject in a better light. He showed the moon at seventeen or eighteen days, but in doing so added an oblique - and impossible - source of illumination. Under the resulting raking light all the variations of the moon’s surface are thrown into greater relief. This was Russell’s chiaroscuro: “a principle well known among Painters and respected by connoisseurs”, as he put it.

The Face of the Moon might seem to be an almost aggressively enlightened picture. The artist has taken an extremely romantic subject - the moon, associated with lovers as well as lunatics; symbol of the goddess Astarte, or Diana, “she who hunts the clouds” - only to banish all such mythical and romantic associations to the shadows of a superstitious past. He showed his audience what was there, and nothing else: the same barren terrain on to which the Apollo astronauts, many years later, were to walk.But despite that it might be a mistake to regard Russell’s picture as a neutral exercise in empirical observation. As the artist himself said, he wanted to create a work of art “corresponding to the Feelings I had upon the first sight of the gibbous Moon through a Telescope”. His picture does indeed evoke the emotions he felt as a young man - a sense of tremendous awe, and fascination - as well as record the appearance of a particular phenomenon. It is revealing that he has deliberately not depicted the full moon, a subject which would have enabled him to give a yet more cartographically informative account of its surface. Instead, he has chosen the “gibbous” moon, more shaded by mystery, and more eloquent - because more palpably vast, and distant - of the scale and majesty of the universe. Along with Russell’s lunar expertise, I think The Face of the Earth demonstrates that the “scientific attitude” is not nearly as passionless, or cold, as we sometimes imagine it to be.
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