Shirburn Castle Observatory

Shirburn Castle Observatory

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This mezzotint published in 1778 celebrates two men from modest circumstances who, through innate talent and rare opportunity, achieved respectability as observers in one of the best-equipped astronomical observatories in England. In this image, Thomas Phelps leans on an adjustable observing chair and looks through the 5-foot-long transit telescope made by Jonathan Sisson. John Bartlett sits nearby with pen and paper in hand, ready to record the time that Phelps reports a star or planet crossing the meridian. The astronomical regulator in the background was made by George Graham. The telescope at left, on a wooden tripod with an alt-azimuth mount, is probably a 3.5-foot-long refractor made by John Dollond. On the floor, at bottom right, is a large celestial globe.
The text at bottom left reads: “Thomas Phelps, aged 82. Who from being a Stable Boy in the year 1718, to the then Lord Chief Justice Parker; afterwards Earl of Macclesfield, rose by his Merit to the upper Employments in that Family, and at last for his uncommon Genius, was promoted to be Observer, in their Observatory at Sherburn Castle. He was born at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, January 1694.”
The text at bottom right reads: “John Bartlett. At the time his Picture was drawn, aged 54. Originally a shepherd in which station, he, by Books & Observations, acquired such a Knowledge in Computation, and of the Heavenly Bodies, as induced the late George Earl of Macclesfield to appoint him Assistant Observer, in his Observatory at Sherburn Castle. He was born at Stoke Talmage in Oxfordshire, August 22d 1721 O.S.”
The signatures read “James Watson fecit” and “Printed & Published March 14th 1778 by Jas Bretherton No 134 New Bond Street.” James Watson (about 1739-1790) was born in Ireland and became a prolific mezzotint engraver in London. Since no artist is here identified-as was the case with most of Watson’s prints-we assume that Watson created this image. James Bretherton (ca. 1730-1806) was an accomplished printer in London.
George Parker, the 2nd Earl of Macclesfield, built his observatory at the 12th-century Shirburn Castle in Oxfordshire in 1739. His son, Thomas Parker, the 3rd Earl of Macclesfield, maintained the observatory until the 1790s, and may have been involved in the production of this print.
Ref: Thomas Hornsby, “An Account of the Observations of the Transit of Venus and of the Eclipse of the Sun, Made at Shirburn Castle and at Oxford,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 59 (1769): 172-182.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
place made
United Kingdom: England, London
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
overall: 16 7/8 in x 11 1/2 in; 42.8625 cm x 29.21 cm
overall: 25 in x 18 in x 7/8 in; 63.5 cm x 45.72 cm x 2.2225 cm
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Medicine and Science: Physical Sciences
Science & Mathematics
Prints from the Physical Sciences Collection
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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