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Royal Observatory Greenwich Drawings and Paintings

We built indeed an observatory at Greenwich… it was for the Observator’s habitation and a little for pomp…" Sir Christopher Wren


Since its foundation in 1675, women have played a key role in the history of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Whether as wives, daughters and sisters of the Astronomers Royal, as ‘human computers’, or in later years, as astronomers, administrators and Director, women have been involved with the work of the Observatory from the start. Presented here, for the first time, is a set of 35 drawings and watercolours of the Royal Observatory buildings and grounds, created by some of the women who called it their home. The artworks provide an important record of the changing history of the Observatory through time. They also provide a window into the female experience of living there, and the interest of these women in its scientific work.

The artworks were created by four talented women closely associated with the 19th century Observatory: Richarda Airy (c.1805-1875), wife of the seventh Astronomer Royal, Sir George Biddell Airy, her daughter Christabel Airy (1842-1917), and Richarda’s sisters, Elizabeth and Caroline Smith.

The artists

Richarda Smith (c.1805-1875) married George Airy in 1830, five years before his appointment as Astronomer Royal. Airy seems to have fallen in love with Richarda at first sight: he proposed within two days of their first meeting, although it was almost six years later that they finally married. A condition of Airy’s employment was that he live on site and in 1836, the family moved into Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory Greenwich. The Airys had nine children, six of whom survived to adulthood. In his autobiography, George Airy describes how he enjoyed working amidst the hustle and bustle of family life. The drawings here showing children at play in the gardens or grounds [RGO 116/3/5 and RGO 116/3/7] give a sense of how Airy’s Observatory bustled with activity. As the Airy family grew, so the dwelling area had to be expanded. These various renovations are recorded in drawings such as [RGO 116/3/6 and RGO 116/3/12], which show Flamsteed House before and after the addition of the new porch and covered passageway.

Richarda Airy lived at the Observatory for over 40 years and from the outset took an active interest in her husband’s work. This is evident in her letters to George and also in her correspondence with the wives of other contemporary astronomers, such as Margaret Herschel, where the latest developments in science and astronomy are discussed side by side with domestic matters. A talented amateur artist, Richarda also provided illustrations for many of George’s lectures, and her drawings in the RGO Archives may have been created for such a purpose [RGO 116/3/10 & RGO 6/47: 346a].

Richarda’s sisters, Elizabeth and Caroline Smith, were also amateur artists and sketched the Royal Observatory on their visits. The fourteen pencil sketches by Elizabeth Smith [RGO 116/3/1-9 and RGO 116/11-15] are particularly fine. They were presented by Elizabeth as a gift to George Airy, as recorded in his accompanying notes [RGO 116/3/16].

The family talent for art was passed down to both the Airy children and grandchildren. Perhaps the most beautiful items in the RGO artwork collection are the stunning watercolours of the Observatory [RGO 116/5/1- RGO 116/5/10] many of which were painted by Richarda’s daughter, Christabel Airy. Born at the Royal Observatory in 1842, Christabel was the Airy’s third daughter. Unlike their brothers, the Airy daughters were taught at home at the Observatory and Christabel spent her entire childhood and most of her adult life there. She was close to her father and accompanied him on his frequent travels. She never married and when her father retired she went to live with him at the White House on the outskirts of Greenwich Park, where she remained until her death in 1917.

Christabel was an active amateur watercolourist, and exhibited paintings with her sister Annot Airy at the Ipswich Fine Art Club. In addition to her works presented here, 22 further watercolours by Christabel Airy are held in the collections of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich and Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust. It is perhaps no coincidence that her niece Anna Airy (1882-1964), whom Christabel and Annot helped raise, would go on to become a highly successful artist and one of the first women officially commissioned as a war artist.

The artworks

The paintings and sketches presented here provide an important record of the 19th century buildings and grounds of the Royal Observatory, much of which underwent substantial changes in later years.

Many of the artworks show features now long gone or later altered. These include the wooden drum of the South East Dome, built in 1857 to house the Great Equatorial Telescope, and replaced in 1893 by the onion-dome [RGO 116/5/7], the Magnetic Observatory built by Airy and later demolished in 20th century [RGO 116/3/9]; the ‘Great Shed’ (where work was carried out on the various instruments of the Observatory) [RGO 116/5/6]; the Meridian Garden with its trees and beehives [RGO 116/5/7]; or the Elizabethan oak tree, long since fallen [RGO 116/3/3 and RGO 116/3/11]. Some of the drawings and paintings were doubtless made to show off Airy’s renovations or additions. Examples include Christabel Airy’s 1858 painting of the South East Dome (the dome was finished in 1857), and the various views of the new ‘Magnetic Observatory’, many of which were executed soon after its enclosure and completion, e.g. [RGO 116/3/2] and [RGO 116/3/3].

That Airy understood the value of these artworks in documenting this history of the Observatory is clear from his note dated 1869 [RGO 116/4/3], which accompanied an 1836 sketch by Caroline Smith [RGO 116/4/1]. There, he outlines at great length the various changes to the Observatory in the years since the sketch was made.

The Greenwich artworks show how closely familiar the women who made them were with the Observatory buildings and grounds. They also highlight their keen interest in the scientific work carried out there. This is captured, for example, in images of the Magnet House where its various instruments, great electrometer mast, and Magnetic and Photographic Offices are shown, e.g. [RGO 116/5/2], RGO 116/5/6] and [RGO 116/5/9]. It is also evident in scenes of the Astronomer Royal and others at work, e.g. [RGO 6/47: 346a], [RGO 116/3/12] and [RGO 116/5/2]. More intimate moments of Observatory life are captured in the sketches of Airy crossing the Front Court [RGO 116/3/8], deer roaming in Greenwich Park [RGO 116/3/4], or children playing with a dog on the lawn at Flamsteed House [RGO 116/3/7]. Together, these images provide a glimpse of how family life and working life intersected at the 19th century Observatory.

In this important year for the history of women, 100 years after some women gained the right to vote for the first time, it is fitting to celebrate the work of these women of the Royal Observatory, who so beautifully documented its history.

Find out more

The drawings and watercolours digitised here are part of a wider collection of artworks held within the RGO Archives. To view the catalogues of the RGO Archives click here. For more on the life of Richarda Airy see this video.


Dr Emma Saunders

Cambridge University Library