Daily Archives: July 2, 2012

Playing with Fire

Francis Bacon heralded the compass, printing, and gunpowder as the three European (really Chinese) inventions that changed the world, but he also had words of praise for another Renaissance (Chinese) innovation:  fireworks. Like gunpowder, fireworks represented the Promethean feat of his age:  stealing fire from heaven, and in both his Essays (1612; “On Masques”) and The New Atlantis (1627) he references the achievement:  we represent also ordinance and instruments of war, and engines of all kinds: and likewise new mixtures and compositions of gunpowder, wildfires burning in water, and unquenchable. Also fireworks of all variety both for pleasure and use.

I’m not sure what the recommended use of fireworks was besides pleasure, but I thought I’d indulge in a brief (and very Eurocentric) illustrated history of fireworks for the beginning of our July 4th week.  As always, when I compare the past and present, I’m struck by the artfulness of the former:  fireworks displays from the Renaissance through the nineteenth century seem to have been as much focused on a flagrant display of machines on the ground as light in the sky. As evidence, look at the elaborate seventeenth-century (Italian, of course) creation below, and an illustration from John Babington’s Pyrotechnia.

Engraving by Lodovico Ottavio Burnacini (1636-1707), courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum, London; John Babington, Pyrotechnia (1635), courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library.

Fireworks demonstrations in Europe are first recorded in the fifteenth century, so two centuries later they are not quite the marvel they once were and the “pyrotechnists” had to stage ever-more elaborate displays in order to impress at every royal and national event:  weddings, coronation, victories in battles and wars. Views of London fireworks celebrating the English victory at the Battle of Boyne in Ireland in 1690 and the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in April of 1749 are below;  the latter celebration definitely had its highs and lows. The high was the first performance of Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, while the “low” was a firework-sparked fire which burned the central pavilion to the ground, accompanied by a swordfight between the pyrotechnist-architect of the performance, Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni, and the organizer of the event, the Duke of Montagu.

Night-time fireworks celebrating William III’s victory at the Battle of Boyne, 1690, British Museum; two views of the fireworks and fireworks pavilion celebrating the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle, April 27, 1749, British Library and Victoria & Albert Museum.

In the nineteenth century, fireworks celebrations look a bit more recognizable (boring), so I’m going to shift to ephemera and fireworks-related items.  From either end of the century, some great British trade cards and a beautiful cover of Lippincott’s Magazine by Will Carqueville.

Trade cards from the British Museum and British Library; Lippincott’s cover from July 1895, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Back to the art of fireworks for the last century:  Eric Revilious’ amazing fireworks design for Wedgwood, commemorating the 1937 coronation of King George VI on a coffee cup, and a recent photograph by Sarah Anne Johnson.

Eric Revilious mug for Wedgwood, 1937, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Chromogenic print with applied photospotting ink, acrylic ink, gouache, and india ink by Sarah Anne Johnson, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

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