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The installation of An imperfect account of a comet © Lynda Laird

The installation An imperfect account of a comet © Lynda Laird

Lynda Laird’s imperfect account of a comet

Photographer Lynda Laird has created an extraordinary, immersive exhibition, An Imperfect Account of a Comet, at Solaris, Norman Road. The Gallery is shrouded in darkness; inside is a large installation of 560 photographic glass plates of stars discovered by Caroline Herschel in the 18th century which she found were missing from the British Star Catalogue. HOT’s Lauris Morgan-Griffiths spoke to Lynda about the project.

Lynda Laird was an artist in residence at the Royal Astronomical Society where she knew of Caroline Herschel, but not the extent of her work, nor of other women working in the field at that time. Their research and findings were particularly astounding due to the strictures put on women at that time.

A section of Caroline Herschel's installation of 680 stars © Lynda Laird

A section of Caroline Herschel’s installation of 680 stars © Lynda Laird

Caroline was barely educated but showed remarkable intelligence and resilience. She contracted typhus at an early age which left her with stunted growth, 4ft 3ins (1.30m), and blind in one eye. Consequently, her mother thought she would be consigned to spinsterhood and domestic duties.

In spite of limited education, she pursued her intellectual life by ‘minding the heavens’, a phrase she used in one of her journals, absorbed in a world of astronomy and discovery – as well as directing her energies towards accepted feminine pursuits of needlework and musical appreciation.

A large part of Caroline’s time was spent supporting her brother, William Herschel, in his astronomical endeavours, noting in her memoirs, ‘I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done, that is to say, I did what he commanded me’. In view of what she achieved this feels somewhat self-deprecating.

First woman admitted to the Royal Astronomical Society

Due to her innate curiosity, intelligence and determination, Caroline made significant discoveries and contributions to the field, but as her writings make apparent, she struggled to gain the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, and her formidable achievements have not enjoyed the same legacy as that of her male counterparts – husbands often took credit for female scientists’ work, as William did for some of her findings.

At that time women did not have careers and were not permitted to be members of the Royal Astronomical Society. However, due to her contributions to the world of astronomy, she was one of the first women to receive a salary working in science, the first, alongside Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician and astronomer,  to be named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the first to publish scientific findings in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Extract from a letter from Caroline Herschel, part of An imperfect account of a comet © Royal Astronomical Society

Extract from a letter from Caroline Herschel, part of An imperfect account of a comet © Royal Astronomical Society

Caroline discovered eight comets and three nebulae, so why with her precision work did Lynda chose the exhibition title? It came from Caroline’s own letters; she often corresponded with senior scientists and whether she considered herself unqualified or, being a woman, sidelined by the mores of the time, in her letters she would belittle her work. She often said she felt invisible.

Caroline never married; she was 97 when she died. She was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 1828, no woman received this award again until Vera Rubin in 1966; the crater C. Herschel on the moon was named after her, as is the Asteroid 281 Lucretia, her second given name. In pursuing a career in science during a period when it was practically unheard of for a woman to do so, Caroline challenged societal norms and helped carve out a path for other women to follow.

Artist in residence in Dungeness

Lynda has now taken up a short artist-in-residency at Derek Jarman’s house in Dungeness; she will be staying at Jarman’s house for two weeks. While there she will be photographing the garden; following the garden’s seasons through the year; experimenting with plant dyes; making Anthotypes, a process similar to cyanotypes except that whereas a cyanotype produces  a negative, an anthrotype produces a positive. This is a process that was originally devised by the 18th century scientist Mary Somerville who Lynda had first come across during her RAS residency. It is more than coincidence when one project spills into another.

Lynda created An Imperfect Account of a Comet from extensive research into the archives of the Royal Astronomical Society during her time as photographic artist in residence. Supported by the Arts Council, this is a touring exhibition shown at Jodrell Bank, St Mary’s Church Slough, Royal Astronomical Society London, the Herschel Museum Bath and St Laurence’s Church, Slough.

Part of the exhibition is a specifically written audio Eight Comets by Phil Tomsett. Written as a collaboration with the musician Phil Tomsett and Annie Needham based on Lynda’s research into the comets that the astronomer Caroline Herschel found in her lifetime, this is a musical and spoken word piece, structured according to the precise charted orbits of the comets and interspersed with words from Herschel’s private journals and observational writings.

An Imperfect Account of a Comet is at Solaris Gallery, 76 Norman Road, TN38 0EJ until 9 March 2024, Wed-Fri 1-5pm, Sat 11am-5pm. There will be a 40-minute performance of 8 Comets by Annie Needham and Phil Tomsett on 9 March at 6pm. Book your free ticket here.


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Posted 13:36 Wednesday, Feb 14, 2024 In: Photography

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