Romantic Circles Gallery
A View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation
The Spectator implied by this design "is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View." From this vantage point, he/she looks down on a vast "Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds" (iv) which curves away from the balloon, until it merges with the horizon. Through "this white Floor," "a vast Assemblage of Thunder-Clouds" are rising, in splendid Majesty and awful Grandeur." They are arranged in concentric circles (with the balloon at their centre), which in turn are distributed, at "great and unequal Distances" from each other, until clouds and circles are lost in the distance (54).
At the centre of this amazing display, through an "Opening" in the clouds about two miles wide, the city of Chester can be seen, flanked by the River Dee, although both have been radically transformed—the former seems "blue"; the latter "red"; and the town's buildings have "no apparent Height." Yet the effect is not displeasing. As Thomas Baldwin reports, "the Whole had a beautiful and rich Look; not like a Model, but a coloured Map."
Completing the prospect visible from the balloon, the distance that divides it from the "white Floor of Clouds" (about four miles, according to Baldwin) is evoked by the thick light-blue ring, apparently rising from the horizon, that almost touches each of the margins of the design—this is what the spectator sees as he/she "hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round, in the azure Sky."
As we gaze at this "Balloon Prospect," the view it represents seems to float at the centre of a flat, featureless, darkly-coloured expanse, which is in turn loosely framed by a heavy and then a light black line. The flat-expanse might at first recall a cardboard overlay, of the type used to frame expensive prints, with a large circular hole removed from its centre so that the design itself can be seen. But in the visual logic of the image we are considering, this "overlay" represents the balloon floating above the observer, which, like the upper intercept in a panorama rotunda, determines the upper limit of his/her aerial vision.
Copyright 2009, Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Thordarson T 203
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"A View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation" was included (facing page 58) 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).
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. He drew the sketch on which "A View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation" was based.
James Heath (1757–1834)—engraver.
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.
In this "View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation," the town of Chester (where Baldwin's aerial voyage began) and the River Dee can be glimpsed far below us, through an opening in the clouds. They seem no more substantial than marks on a coloured map, although in this case most of the map has vanished. The surface of the earth, still a significant presence in "A Balloon Prospect from above the Clouds," has now been almost entirely eclipsed by the aerial world, which forms the first of this design's three primary subjects.
Baldwin carefully maps the shapes, colours, and currents of this vast world, as it appears from the car of the Balloon. But this brings into view the design's second subject, namely the limits of conventional conceptual and aesthetic categories when applied to aerial worlds. More particularly, the scene represented by Baldwin collocates the static and the dynamic, order and chaos, fact and imagination, the miniature and the large, the beautiful and the sublime, in ways that problematize these distinctions.
According to Burke, "sublime objects are "vast," "dark," "gloomy," "solid," and "massive"; while beautiful objects are "small," clear, "light," and "delicate" (281-2). And these contrast reflect their different causes—"one being founded on pain, the other on pleasure"—, which confirm "an eternal distinction between them" (i: 281-2). Yet in "View from the Balloon," objects that once seemed large, perhaps even sublime (Chester and the River Dee), now compose a beautiful miniature, framed by a ring of delicate white cloud, which is dwarfed by a sublime object (the aerial world) that is vast, powerful, and massive, but also delicate, insubstantial, and flooded with light. Further confusing the picture, the thunderclouds that gather in rings round the miniature, are static/dynamic forms (subject to "imperceptibly slow yet perpetual Changes" (57)), whose objective forms assume "at Times EVERY ORGANIZED SHAPE THAT Fancy could suggest" (57); and which belong to an order that is indifferently regular and chaotic (54).
In this liminal zone, at the margins of what has been known and thought, the conventional sublime is displaced by the hyper-sublime, a phenomenon that forms the third subject of "View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation." Burke's sublime objects (as seen from the surface of the earth) are here dwarfed by a vast aerial prospect, which in turn provides an indirect presentation of the infinite, protean, ceaselessly changing world of which it is part.
The circular nature of the print was intended to mimic the experience of viewing the earth from a great height.
As one of the two earliest pictorial-views taken from the car of a balloon—the other is Baldwin's "A Balloon Prospect from Above the Clouds"—the primary significance of this image derives from its pioneering attempt to record the forms (cloudscapes) of the aerial world and the pressure they exert on commonplace aesthetic and conceptual categories. As this suggests, "View from the Balloon at its Greatest Elevation" is strongly influenced by eighteenth-century empiricism, most obviously in the emphasis it places on the balloonist/explorer's experience.
And yet, in Airopaidia, as Baldwin struggles to represent the cloudscapes he encounters, and as his list of novel sensations begins to swell, description becomes entwined with imagination, and Enlightenment empiricism begins to look like Romanticism. The scenes he is describing often assume the contours of fiction (38). The reproductive imagination (for empiricists, the primary vehicle of perception and representation) is on occasion "lost" or "overwhelmed." And when Baldwin attempts to find a philosophical point of reference for the scene depicted in "View from the Balloon," he turns to George Berkeley (1685-1753), easily the most "Romantic" of the eighteenth-century empiricists: "The imperceptibly slow yet perpetual Changes [the thunderclouds] underwent, strongly recalled to Remembrance, the Opinion of the great Berkeley, as well as of the ancient Philosophers, that AIR GIVES FORM TO THINGS . . ." (57-8). We are at this point, a least in cultural terms, not far distant from the interactive world represented in Romanticism by the Aeolian Harp.
When framed in this way, the nascently Romantic elements of "View from the Balloon" come to the foreground—such as its perspectivism; focus on clouds, a favourite subject for Romantic writers and painters (Holmes 160; Jacobus 10-35); portrait of an "active universe" (Wordsworth 78); and exploration of the hyper-sublime. And this in turn brings into view its significance as a transitional work, midway between Enlightenment and Romanticism.
This image functions as a documentary record of the aerial environment above Chester, seen by Baldwin during his balloon journey from Chester to Rixton Moss, and as an illustration of the textual account of this journey provided in Airopaidia. In both contexts, it functions as a case study of the hyper-sublime and of the limits of conventional aesthetic and conceptual categories. As a plate in Airopaidia, it completes the visual narrative begun by "The Balloon Over Helsbye Hill in Cheshire"and "A Balloon Prospect from above the Clouds."
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. The Early Writings, vol. 1 of The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke. Ed. T. O. McLoughlin and James T. Boulton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 185-320.
Jacobus, Mary. Romantic Things: A Tree, a Rock, a Cloud. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Holmes, Richard. The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. London: Harper Collins, 2008.
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.
William Wordsworth. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams and Stephen Gill. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1979.
"A View from the Balloon at its Greatest elevation" 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