Friday 7th June 2013

Apocalypse Now and Then

The consequences of global warming and climate change mean that we are now all victim to the vagaries of the weather, as tsunamis, tornadoes and torrents occur with ever-increasing frequency. Alas, the barometer no longer reads 'Set Fair' and, on the day that Europe and China have embarked upon a sabre-rattling spat over cut-price solar panels, let us contemplate our impending fate by casting a glance at this dramatic ‘Diagram of Meteorology, Displaying the Various Phenomena of the Atmosphere’. This delineation of cataclysmic proportions may offer a glimpse of things to come, albeit seen retrospectively through nineteenth century eyes. Déjà vu? The Victorians have beaten us to it with this drawing room depiction of the Apocalypse.

As we ‘Prepare To Meet Our God’, let us gaze upon this panoramic exhibition of natural violence of Biblical proportions, wherein is witnessed - in anticipation - all the clichéd ingredients of the most overblown and outré disaster movie. The drama of the seas is especially richly depicted: in the foreground a sinking ship is lost to the deep due to the effects of ‘The Malstrom’:

“Although not directly connected with Meteorology, we have introduced as an interesting adjunct to our picture, a view of THE MALSTROOM. This greatest of whirlpools is situated near the island of Moskoe, off the coast of Norway. Its appearance and its mode of action will be better understood by a careful inspection of the engraving, than by any verbal description. When the current sets in a particular direction and is opposed by stormy winds, the violence of this terrific gulf is such, that vessels within the space of its action are drawn with irresistible fury into the foaming and thundering abyss, plunged beneath its awful waves, and speedily dashed to atoms on the sharp crags which compose the bottom.”

Simultaneously, two waterspouts - one a distinctive corkscrew - dance triumphantly on the waves, whilst the lighthouse is struck by lightning, in the manner of the Tower in the Tarot. As this marine spectacle is unfolding, on the shore a figure, rather resembling the man from a weather-house, stands un-emotive and seemingly oblivious to the chaos around him. Has he deliberately turned his back on the apocalypse? That remains unclear, though he is certainly no King Canute brazenly daring the tide to turn back. His role in the proceedings is ambiguous: is he the inhabitant of the house that has been wrecked by the effects of tempestuous winds?  Perhaps, but more probably he represents the lone vulnerability of the human race when confronted by the uncontrollable force and fury of the elements. He stands in stark contrast to the half-naked character behind him who is seen running towards the Mirage (No 17), which he imagines to be his salvation. On the far shore, the snow exerts its silent, magical transformation of the landscape. The drama of the seas is echoed in the skies, which, despite the blackness of the storm clouds, overall present a more placid appearance. The brilliant sunrise provides a welcome ray of hope; the rainbow arches above into the heavens amongst Melies-esque dream-like clouds, falling stars and aerolites, whilst, on the horizon, the thunderous sky is alleviated by the celestial fireworks of the Aurora Borealis.

The mania for depictions of epic spectacle such as this variously had its origins in the Romantic Movement, the phantasmagoria, de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, and the cult for the sublime and reached its apogee in the paintings of John Martin; exerting an influence on nineteenth century stage design and, subsequently, the décor of the silent cinema, most notably in the films of D.W. Griffith.

This print is the crème de la crème of a series of Astronomical Diagrams drawn and engraved by John Emslie and first published by James Reynolds in 1846, and reprinted is several editions. The earliest editions appear to consist of twelve plates, whilst later editions were expanded to run to twenty plates under the title Astronomical and Geographical Diagrams. The earliest editions, from which this is an example, consisted of steel engravings coloured by hand; the later editions had colour-printed lithographs printed by Standidge & Company, circa 1860. We are pleased to be be able to offer a selection of these Diagrams for sale.


Back to blog