Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Thomas Harriot Exhibition - Part II

Part one here

I stepped in. And stepped back ten years to school days - looking around at the faded walls, the desks laid out for group work, the pale boards on which the records office had stapled Harriot's 400-year-old recordings.

Wait. Stapled?

Dear Lord! These are sacred parchments - works of a genius. You can't staple them- Oh. Oh, wait.

Two other Harriot fans watched my face drop as I approached the image I'd seen reproduced so many times in magazines, newspapers, at talks, seminars, exhibitions, in books, on television documentaries. Reproduced. Yep, once again reproduced. I'd misunderstood the content of this month-long display of the Harriot papers.

Just two other visitors. No security. No experts. No white gloves. Just me, astronomer man with glasses, and interested partner. Visions of January flashed through my head - where I mistook part of Herschel's telescope for a cement mixer. I'd clearly misread the word "original", which - on reflection - had never appeared. I'd made an astronomical faux pas.

So yes, I wandered the little classroom feeling slightly miffed and very tired and dangerously hungry. But things improved.

I flicked through the photocopies of Harriot's work and marvelled at his early sketches and maps of the lunar surface. Cartography can't be easy - intricate and detailed, skilled, slow. Lunar cartography must be very tricky - mapping from over 220,000 miles away. Lunar cartography with a 6x Dutch trunke - now there's a challenge. The moon's always moving; you can't sketch while looking at the moon; Dutch trunkes are unsteady and blurry.

first ever recorded sketch of moon's surface by Thomas Harriot, date 26 July 1609

The man was a genius.

I spent half an hour flicking through the papers and staring at the posters like a child seeing his own work on display. But 4:30pm crept up and passed and I left the exhibition still craving more. So I asked for more.

"Excuse me," I said to Gail at reception. "Could you tell me where the original Harriot papers are kept? Do you know?"

She looked up and smiled. "Yes, they're at Petworth House."

I knew that name. I'd driven past a couple of hours ago.

"Is there any way to see them? I'm writing a book, you see, and would love the opportunity to view the original documents."

"You need to write a request. To the estate. To Lord Egremont. He keeps all the original documents and you can only receive permission from him."

I think she thought that'd put me off.

"Have you got his address?" I asked.

Gail smiled. "You'll need to write here, to the county records office, and explain you would like to visit Petworth for literary reasons. Explain as much as you can - the book idea, the audience, who may publish it. The office will decide whether to put your request to Lord Egremont. We will then contact you to organise a visit."

Hm. "Excellent, I'll do that then."

And I will. I'd love to see the documents - I've never seen such important, old papers before. And having heard the Chapman lecture at Astrofest, and been chased out of Trefenty by wild dogs, I feel this could be a nice conclusion to my pursuit of Harriot.

I left the records office to splashing rain and retired to violent violin music in the Fountain Inn, after recoiling as I stepped past the Chichester Pain Clinic. All the while, images of a 17th-century, middle-aged, moneyed gent staring up at the night's sky through a slightly wonky toilet roll entertained my mind.

I felt a step closer to knowing the man.


Sam said...

If your able to arrange a visit to check out the original drawings, I wouln't mind joining you if you fancied a companion? I love history!

Rob Self-Pierson said...

Hi Sam. Will let you know how I get on. Can't imagine it being this year but hopefully it'll happen. Companions always welcome.

[word verification for me posting this comment is "porrob"]