A special moment in time. The return of Halley's comet, 1759

25th January 2012
Now this painting might not look like anything out of the ordinary, but it is special. At least I have always thought so. It is by the English Landscape painter Samuel Scott (1702-72). And it shows the return of Halley's comet in 1759 as seen from the south bank of the river Thames, London. Also, on the opposite bank, is Westminster Abbey along with the then newly built Westminster Bridge. The Royal Barge of George II is upon the water in the centre.
Georgian-era view of London, Westminster and Thames, with comet in sky
Samuel Scott - Return of Halley's Comet 1759.


I first saw the gorgeous and evocative painting in a book dealing with the history of astronomy. It was a long time ago (I won't reveal how long ago, but I was a teenager at the time). Whenever I encountered it I felt I could recall in some strange fantasy of imagination what it might have been like to be there. I could walk along that embankment. I could speak with those people, look up at the sky with them. It was a vivid memory. I even imagined I could hear a kind of compilation of the music that was popular at the time.

Well the years came and went until just a few months ago when I was thinking about my next novel, which is set in Georgian times. I recalled that painting and the book in which I had seen it. And because I never throw books away (well, hardly ever) I climbed up into the attic and after an hour or so scrambling around finally found it. It was then when I realised that it was also the location, the exact part of the Thames, upon which the first performance of Handel's Water Music took place in 1717- a fabulous moment in history when King George journeyed upon the royal barge one summer's evening from Whitehall to Chelsea, accompanied by an orchestra of 50 musicians - who were placed upon their own vessel close by.

Doing it again

This performance was reconstructed and played again by modern musicians a few years back for a BBC TV program. Here is the trailer for it. You can see Westminster and the current (Victorian) Houses of Parliament in the background. Same place. Same view almost.
Brief clip - Water Music, Handel.
So things have come full circle. By gazing at a very special painting once again, I can incorporate what I felt and heard and understood all those years ago as background detail to my present story. Thanks are definitely due to Mr Scott, I would say, for providing us with just one more example of how artists, performers and writers of all persuasions across the generations somehow manage to speak to one another. Thoughts have no barriers.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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