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Oak Furniture, Folk and Naïve Art / British School (18th Century) The Royal Observatory, Greenwich and its meridian buildings from the south-south-east, c. 1790

Lot 22
British School
(18th Century)
The Royal Observatory, Greenwich and its meridian buildings from the south-south-east, c. 1790
27 September 2022, 10:00 BST

Sold for £6,375 inc. premium

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British School (18th Century)

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich and its meridian buildings from the south-south-east, c. 1790
Oil on canvas
63.8 x 86.4cm (25 x 34in).


Whilst we have never come across an oil painting with the Royal Observatory being the sole focus of the picture, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich has a similar view, in watercolour, probably by the same hand, which they date to 1779-89 (I.D. - NMM AST0042).

Dr Pieter van der Merwe, Curator Emeritus for the National Maritime Museum, writes about the watercolour:

'Watercolour of the Royal Observatory and its meridian buildings from the south-south-east, the artist's viewpoint being roughly from in front of the entrance to the late-19th-century South Building. Modern Blackheath Avenue would be to his right, where the ground is also more level than shown.

Notable features include the tall chimney of the rear extension to Flamsteed House that was added under James Bradley (1692-1762) as 3rd Astronomer Royal from 1742. His extension was demolished in 1789 and replaced by a larger one (with two tall chimneys) by Nevil Maskelyne (1732–1811), 5th Astronomer Royal from 1765. The two-storey building with a classical pediment is Bradley's 'New Observatory' of 1749 comprising a ground-floor computing room with an assistant's quarters above and two single-storey wings holding a quadrant room to the west and Bradley's transit room to the east: the roof of the latter is shown open for transit observations on Bradley's Greenwich Meridian, established in 1750 (about 6 metres west of Airy's, the current Prime Meridian of 1851).

The image dates to after 1779 since the so-called 'Advanced Building' – the one with the sloping (and opening) roof was built to contain new instruments in that year, south of Bradley's quadrant room and as an upward extension of John Flamsteed's 1670s sextant house: neither now survive. The side windows of Flamsteed House are also inaccurately shown as three panes wide when in fact they had four and were vertical-opening upper and lower casement pairs from 1779 until changed to single sashes in 1790. The vent-like finial on the west turret is the rotating lens of the camera obscura that Maskelyne installed there by 1778.

The domed building at left seems to be at the south-west corner of Bradley's Flamsteed House extension but this is owing to misleading perspective. It is in fact the western summerhouse on the Observatory's north terrace, though it may not have been so fully visible from the artist's apparent viewpoint. Its eastern pair is hidden by Bradley's New Observatory. In 1773 Maskelyne raised the height of the summerhouses and extended them south, adding hemispherical domes and upper horizontal windows (of which one is shown here). The domes opened to observe comets using a pair of equatorial sectors installed under them.

The pitched-roof building at lower left (in fact more square than rectangular) is the 1670s 'Garden House' used as a stable through the 18th century, with sloping access up to the gate shown in the perimeter wall: it is today a flat-roofed plant room. The other shed, apparently wooden, is undocumented and probably for an associated purpose (e.g. a hay store). The foreground shows former sand and gravel workings on the south-west and south side of the hill, now a partly terraced garden area. This early quarrying had stopped when the Observatory was built in the 1670s, or very soon after.

The drawing arrived, originally on loan to the National Maritime Museum from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, in a rather damaged gilded wooden frame. It may be the image of the Observatory that is second on a list of a dozen pictures, formerly belonging to Nevil Maskelyne, that his wife presented to the Observatory and left at Flamsteed House when she moved out in 1811, following his death. When the Royal Greenwich Observatory closed in 1998, ownership of this and other items belonging to it was transferred to the Museum. See ZBA0692 for further details.'

Into the later 19th century Blackheath itself (south and east of the Park walls) was largely gravel and sand pits between the roads until they started to be filled in. This was finished after World War II with bombing rubble from the London blitz, grassed over level as it now is, except the Maze Hill pit which still survives just outside the south-east corner of the Park - now a large grassy and gorsey declivity about 15 to 20 feet below the road: it tended to be a hangout for the highwaymen and footpads who infested the Heath in older days. However, robbery wasn't a problem in the Park which was fully walled round in 1619-25 (replacing about 200 years of only being fenced) under James I, a large job finished in the year he died.

Dr van der Merwe also comments on the similarities between the watercolour and our picture – 'The (fanciful) rocks are a little different but the figures are the same, the turret domes the same (one with a vent finial) the other not, the trees at the back of the building the same and also the half-open sash window at lower right.' He also points out that our oil painting shows the central south window of Flamsteed House being three panes wide, as opposed to four in the Museum's watercolour version. As there is a watercolour of 1843 which also shows a clear view of the south window as a sash, also three panes wide, one might infer that the oil painting follows the watercolour, perhaps after the long Great or Octagon Room windows were all changed to sashes in 1790.

The Royal Observatory of Greenwich is known for hosting the Prime Meridian of the world. During the second half of the 19th century, the expansion of transport networks created the need for an international time standard as almost every city in the world had its own local time. In 1884, delegates representing 25 different nations met at the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC. Greenwich was chosen to be the Longitude 0° 0' 0''; the centre between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.

We would like to thank Dr Pieter van der Merwe for his help in cataloguing this picture.

Additional information