Material Culture of Spectacle: Vincenzo Lunardi’s Voyage in the Skies Over London

Ethan Snyder, WPAMC ’23

Winterthur Museum 1956.0038.037, ca. 1784-1790.

This tin-glazed earthenware plate in the Winterthur collection commemorates Vincenzo Lunardi’s 1784 balloon voyage from London to Ware, lying about 20 miles north of the city. Made locally by a Lambeth pottery, the plate displays the importation of Chinese and Dutch design in its white-bodied glaze and cobalt decoration. In addition to cobalt, iron and antimony are used to achieve the balloon’s browns and yellows, respectively. Viewed in raking light one can see the impressions of the maker’s handiwork on the bottom of the plate from its being molded on a hump. 

I will use this blog post to suggest two main ideas about this balloon plate. One, that Lunardi’s flight inspired a wide variety of consumer goods reflecting its massive audience; and two, the material forms representing Lunardi’s flight, like the flight itself, are objects of spectacle.

Lunardi’s flight is aptly summarized in a scrapbook on ballooning in the Winterthur Library special collections compiled by the early Victorian photographer and aeronaut enthusiast Hugh Diamond: on September 15, 1784 “the first aerial voyage in England was performed in London by Vincent Lunardi a native of Italy. His balloon was made of oiled silk painted in alternative stripes… He departed the Artillery Ground with a dog, a cat, and a pigeon and descended in a meadow near Ware in Hertfordshire.”1 Lunardi began advertising his flight in July after the completion of his balloon; it was to be exhibited before his flight at the Lyceum and after at the Pantheon. A newspaper from October 2nd notes that no less than 2,500 people attended the exhibition on the day prior.

Hugh Diamond’s Scrapbook on Ballooning Winterthur Library Doc. 433

While the intensity of public curiosity surrounding the balloon is not quantifiable, descriptions of the crowd and its size provide helpful data that helps tease out how big a spectacle this flight was. Estimates for the attendance of this event range from 150,000 to 200,000 people. By mid-morning, the Public Advertiser notes that “City Road… was so crowded as almost to be impassible” and in the hours leading up to take-off, “the company continued to increase till a greater crowd was collected than perhaps ever met before on an equal space of ground.”2 The Morning Chronicle’s report sheds some light on the make-up of the crowd, writing that “Royal and noble personages, foreign nobility, and persons of every possible description attended.”3 In addition, they note that “the general attention of the town and its inhabitants of all ranks, from the Countess to the Cobler’s Wife, and from my Lady in St. James’ square to my Lord. The little crooked shoe-shiner in an alley in Shoreditch, has been for some days past engrossed by Mr. Lunardi and his Balloon.”4 Many accounts note the presence of well-known Londoners such as Edmund Burke, the Prince of Wales, Charles James Fox, and Lord North, among others.

In order to match the variety of tastes of the diverse audience who witnessed or who were otherwise enthralled by this event, an equally wide variety of goods surrounding it were produced. Winterthur’s collection provides a small sampling representing some of the ceramics produced. Notice that in each example, Lunardi’s balloon is depicted above a group of birds, signifying one step in humanity’s domination over and progress beyond the natural world. Winterthur’s Lunardi plate serves as a spectacle, just like the flight, insofar as it was used or not used. With a careful examination of the plate’s front under raking light, it was determined that this plate was most likely not used for food service. As tin-ware glaze is rather soft, it tends to record scratching from utensils such as knives: no such evidence is recorded on this plate, suggesting another kind of use. Further, the damage to the back near the rim of the plate that corresponds with the bottom of the decoration suggests that this plate was most likely used for display. Hence, this plate was most likely valued not for its use-value, but its optical value as an object of signification, communicating the owner’s interest in the contemporary buzz surrounding ballooning and scientific progress. It is also likely that the owner of this plate witnessed the ascension and desired a material souvenir of the ephemeral experience.

Winterthur Museum 1956.0038.037

In addition to these objects of spectacle in the domestic sphere, we can find material goods that were also part of the public sphere, such as this umbrella topper in the collection of the London Science Museum. Ostensibly, as umbrellas were just beginning to come into fashion in England around the time of Lunardi’s flight, it would have been a noticeable (and in comparison to the plate, rarified) accessory taken into the public sphere. Not only would this “fashion novelt[y],” to use the language of John Crowley, attract attention in public, but its porcelain top depicting Lunardi’s flight would signify to this very public the user’s social standing and taste.5 It is possible to imagine that in the face of public ridicule surrounding umbrella use as described by Crowley, the Lunardi topper would be a novelty that neutralized people’s attitudes. 

Courtesy of the London Science Museum 1946.122 (Penn-Gaskell Collection)

Beyond Lunardi’s depiction on plates and umbrella toppers, he can be found on medals, visual culture, and even textiles. An example of a corresponding pocket and paper design source can be found at the MFA Boston and the the Science Museum in London, respectively. Ballooning seems to have had quite a profound impact on the contemporary fashion as they can be found embroidered (as in the example of this pocket) on surviving waistcoats, too. Even a new style of hat resembling the form of a balloon took on the nomenclature of Lunardi Bonnet. A spectator of Lunardi’s flight who recorded his experience in the Morning Chronicle on September 18th notes that before leaving the house to attend the launch, his wife Jenny secured her “balloon hat squeezed into 99 forms.”6

Still today, countless people are fascinated by aeronautics. Our hopes and fears, driven now by the possibility of privatized space flight for the wealthiest few, are reflected in artifacts of our contemporary such as SpaceX apparel and Jeff Bezos memes alike.

1 Scraps on balloons, 1783-1866, 1950s. Winterthur Library Doc. 433.

2 “News.” Public Advertiser, 16 Sept. 1784.

3 “News.” Morning Chronicle, 16 Sept. 1784.

4 “News.” Morning Chronicle, 15 Sept. 1784.

5 John Crowley, The Invention of Comfort, 2001. 163.

6 “News.” Morning Chronicle 17 September, 1784.

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