The Balloon Over Hellsbye Hill in Cheshire
Writing in Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion (1786), Thomas Baldwin describes this view as "taken in a high Field, at the End of Sutton-Causeway," while looking to the southwest, 2.30PM "on Thursday the 8th of September, 1785" (iv). It comprises three horizontal panels, which offer in turn, beginning from the lower-margin of the design: first a beautiful, then a sublime and, finally, a hyper-sublime landscape.
The first landscape occupies the lower third of the design. On the far side of four large trees, it slopes gently down from the "high field," through a peaceful rural-landscape, past a meandering stream (probably Witton Brook), towards a village almost hidden by trees, and a small hill crowned by a church and its tower. In the middle-distance, this beautiful, rustic landscape is succeeded by the second, which encompasses, to the left, the imposing form of Helsbye Hill and, to the right, a view that extends over two bodies of water (probably marshland), across a line of distant hills, to the vast estuary of the River Mersey.
The third landscape, occupying more than half of the design, rises above the others. It is composed first of a lightly coloured band of sky without distinct features, which seems to lie at an immense distance from the observer. Above it a second and then a third band of sky, each darker than the one beneath it, evoke the immense vault of the heavens, arching from the horizon into the air and then back over the observer. The effect is completed by the two black clouds towering over Helsbye Hill, and over the landscape that divides the Hill from the "high field" where the viewer is standing. The sky and clouds echo the landscapes below, while dwarfing them both, as if to demonstrate that a scale able to reach only from the beautiful to the sublime will be an inadequate tool for describing the aerial world.
Each of the three panels we have been discussing is bisected by a vertical line that divides them in two. In the first, the line is formed by the road leading from the lower-boundary of the design, across the bridge, towards the small village. In the second, the "same" line is continued (and widened) by the cliff in which Helsbye Hill terminates, which takes our gaze from land to sky. Immediately above the Hill, an aerial highway, its borders marked by the two black clouds, leads us still further into the air where, at the upper margin of the design, Thomas Baldwin's balloon can be seen, taking him to the borders of a world that, for this design at least, stretches into the distance, far beyond the limits of representation.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 203
Height (in centimeters):
Width (in centimeters):
"The Balloon over Helsbye Hill in Chester" was included (facing page 78) in Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the eighth of September, 1785, taken from Minutes made during the Voyage . . . (Chester: Printed for the Author, 1786).
Vincenzo Lunardi's visit to Chester in 1785, which was advertised as the occasion for his ascent in a hydrogen balloon from the town's castle (Anonymous, "Extract of a Letter"). In the event, Lunardi suffering a burn to the hand from an acid used to make the hydrogen, and his servants were left to make the ascent, in order to appease the angry crowd (Chester Community Heritage & History 5).
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.
Vincenzo Lunardi (1759-1806)—pioneer aeronaut and Secretary to the Neopolitan Ambassador in London. On 15 September 1784, he made the first balloon ascent in England, accompanied by a cat, dog, and pigeon, and watched by huge crowds.
Thomas Baldwin A.M., of Chester—a clergyman from Hoole Hall, who was also pioneer aeronaut and author of Airopaidia. With R. Newton he designed and painted the sketch on which "The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill in Cheshire" was based.
Thomas Stothard (1755-1834)—fashionable painter and book illustrator. He improved the sketch drawn by Baldwin and Newton, which was then engraved by William Sharp (1749-1824), one of the most gifted engravers of the age.
Helsbye-Hill [Helsby Hill], Cheshire, England.
Helsby, Cheshire, England—the village at the foot of Helsbye-Hill.
Chester, Cheshire, England (on the River Dee)—where Baldwin's "Balloon Excursion" began.
The image is one of four full-page designs included in Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia (1786), which when seen together compose a visual narrative that explores the dimensions and some of the implications of aerial views.
The primary subject of this image is Thomas Baldwin's "Balloon Excursion," from Chester to Warrington, which it depicts just 50 minutes after it began, as seen from "a high Field, at the End of Sutton-Causeway" (iv, 29). In this regard, the design (directly or indirectly) represents the singularity of the occasion; the rapidity of the balloon's ascent; the bravery of the balloonist; the path taken by the balloon; and the immense, aerial world that Baldwin has begun to explore.
But "The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill in Cheshire" also takes as its subject the challenge to traditional aesthetic and conceptual categories (small/large; beautiful/sublime) posed by ballooning. At first glance the prospect it presents might seem conventional: it leads the eye from the beautiful (in the foreground) to the sublime (in the middle ground) and then to the infinite world that is the sublime's ultimate referent (the background and upper-half of the design). But this third, previously inaccessible realm, is now being explored by Baldwin, and from where he stands the large now seems small, and the terrestrial sublime is dwarfed by an aerial hyper-sublime.
This subject is widened by the contrast between, on the one hand, the balloonist's new technology and New World and, on the other hand, the traditional rural-scene beneath him. We look up in astonishment as Baldwin's balloon approaches the margins of the old order, while he looks back at his audience, standing motionless, almost invisible, on the margins of the new.
This image highlighted the sublime nature of Baldwin’s flight, which carried him high above Helsbye-Hill amidst the “tremendous” storm clouds that were “grand yet beautiful.”
"The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill in Cheshire," along with the book it illustrates and episode it reports, are products of the balloon craze that took hold in England after the flights of Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier in Paris (21 November 1783) and Vincenzo Lunardi in London (15 September 1784). During this period, as Horace Walpole remarked, it seemed that balloons were the talk of "senators, philosophers, ladies, everybody" (quoted in Keen, 507).
Balloons, along with the cultural phenomena they spawned, are a by-product of "the Chemical Revolution of the 1770s and ‘80s, which transformed the singular Aristotelian element of air into a plurality of airs distinguished by dramatic differences in their behaviour" (Riskin 54). They were therefore often seen as an emblem of Enlightenment science, and an example of the way in which its achievements were popularized, in this case through public spectacle (Lynn). Baldwin sees himself as continuing this work. He carries with him a variety of scientific instruments; the materials necessary to record his observations and experiences; and the paraphernalia required to conduct certain aerial experiments. Indeed the car of his Balloon is a floating laboratory.
The artist's careful specification of time, place, and point of view, and the precise topological detail provided by "The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill in Cheshire," place it in the same tradition. And yet, as the design suggests, it also anticipates themes more closely associated with Romanticism, such as the surprising exchanges between sensation, perception, and optical-technologies; the consequent multiplication of perceptual worlds; a growing sense of the unreality of "reality"; the longing of the finite for the infinite; and so on—themes that are developed by the three otherfull-pageillustrations that accompany "The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill" in Airopaidia.
The image functions as a report of an episode in Baldwin's balloon excursion; an illustration of that episode as recounted in his "Narrative of a Balloon Excursion"; a testament to the balloonist's bravery and the ingenuity of science; and a reflection on the challenge posed by balloon flight, to traditional aesthetic and conceptual categories. In the context of Airopaidia, it also functions as the contrary of and counter-weight to "A Balloon Prospect from above the Clouds."
[Anonymous]. "Extract of Letter from Liverpool, Aug. 1." Chester Journal, August 1785.
Chester Community Heritage & History. "Dancing in the Clouds." CHH News (Spring 2008).
Davy, M. J. B. Interpretive History of Flight: a Survey of the History and Development of Aeronautics with Particular Reference to Contemporary Influences and Conditions. London: His Majesty's Stationary Office, 1948.
Thébaud-Sorger, Marie. "Thomas Baldwin's Airopaidia, or the Aerial View in Colour." Seeing from Above: A Cultural History of the Aerial View. Ed. Mark Dorrian and Frédéric Pousin. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013. 46-65.
Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. London: Harper Collins, 2008.
Keen, Paul. "The ‘Balloonomania': Science and Spectacle in 1780s England,"
Eighteenth-Century Studies 39. 4 (Summer 2006): 507- 35.
Lynn, Michael R. The Sublime Invention: Ballooning in Europe, 1783-1820. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010.
Lunardi, Vincent, Esq. Secretary to the Neapolitan Ambassador. An Account of the First Aerial voyage in England, in a Series of Letters to his Guardian, Chevalier Gherardo Compagni, Written under the Impressions of the various Events that affected the Undertaking. London: Printed for the Author, 1784.
Riskin, Jessica. "Amusing Physics." Science and Spectacle in the European Enlightenment. Ed. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent and Christine Blondel. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008: 43-64.
"The Balloon over Helsybe Hill in Cheshire" Publish'd May 1st. 1786, by T. Baldwin[,] Chester, [included in] Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the eighth of September, 1785, taken from Minutes made during the Voyage: Hints on the Improvement of Balloons and Mode of Inflation by Steam: Means to Prevent their Descent over Water: Occasional Enquiries into the State of the Atmosphere, favouring their Direction: With various Philosophical Observations and Conjectures. To which is subjoined, Menstruation of Heights by the Barometer, made Plain: With extensive Tables. The Whole serving as an Introduction to Aerial Navigation: with a copious Index. By Thomas Baldwin, Esq. A.M. Chester: Printed for the author, by J. Fletcher; and sold by W. Lowndes, No. 77, Fleet-Street, London; J. Poole, Chester; and other Booksellers, 1786.
5 January 1786