Lily Ford, a PhD candidate at Birkbeck has visited the reading room a number of times over the past six months or so. On each occasion she has been reading Airopaidia (Porteus Library 05 SR) by Thomas Baldwin. Luckily I caught her on her last visit and asked why she had been reading this text and how it was relevant to her wider research.
Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia contains the first British representations of a ‘real’ aerial view. The aerial view had long been imagined – there are ascension fantasies in Cicero, Lucian, and Dante among others, and ‘bird’s-eye views’ had been sketched from hills or steeples for centuries – but it was only with the invention of the hot air balloon that it could be experienced. Baldwin hired the entrepreneur Vincent Lunardi’s balloon and ascended over Chester in September 1785. He found the change in the earth’s appearance when seen from above the clouds fascinating. He had two drawings engraved and reproduced in colour in the book, and he included quite specific instructions about how to look at them, in order to recreate the sensations of wonder and delight that the views had provoked in him.
Baldwin’s instructions for viewing are as follows:
‘A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation. The Spectator is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View: looking down on the Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds and seeing the City of Chester, as it appeared throu’ the Opening: which discovers the Landscape below, limited, by surrounding Vapour, to something less than two Miles in Diameter. The Breadth of the blue Margin defines the apparent Height of the Spectator in the Balloon (viz. 4 Miles) above the Floor of Clouds, as he hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round into the azure sky.’ (p. IIII)
Baldwin’s sense of wonder is captured well by his purple prose:
‘…what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty! A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture: to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminished almost beyond the bounds of credibility.’ (p.37)
Reading Baldwin’s exhilarated account of his flight, and looking at these images, got me thinking about how the aerial view changes our understanding of the world. My PhD thesis considers the cultural impact of flight and representations of the aerial view. It is focused on the 1920s when aeroplanes and aerial photography, invigorated after the rapid technological development of the First World War, became integrated into a more general ‘airmindedness’. But it all begins with Airopaidia.
‘A Balloon-Prospect from above the Clouds, or Chromatic View of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aerial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu’ the Air.’ (p. IIII)
As I understand it, Baldwin paid for the book’s publication and distribution himself, and it does not seem to have made any impact on critics at the time. Senate House’s copy, while not unique (there are 20 copies in UK academic libraries) is inscribed ‘From the author’. It gives me the sense of a more direct link to this fascinating narrative, and I feel very glad to be consulting it 227 years on.