Urania’s Mirror; or, a View of the Heavens (circa 1825)

These thirty-two astronomical star-chart cards, printed and hand-coloured, have long been known under the name “Urania’s Mirror”. In a box with a printed label depicting Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, accompanied by Jehoshaphat Aspin’s little book A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy, these charming 8x5½-inch images of the constellations were first published by Samuel Leigh of London in 1824 or 1825.

Lively and colorful as they are, they were enormously popular — and probably very helpful to amateur astronomers learning to read the heavens. Each card is, in P. D. Hingley’s description, “pierced with holes corresponding in size to the magnitudes of the brightest stars. Thus when held up to the light they give quite a realistic representation of the constellation pattern”, which the student could memorize and rediscover in the night sky.

The illustrations themselves are of interesting provenance. Based on Alexander Jamieson’s A Celestial Atlas (1822), they were engraved by the British engraver and cartographer Sidney Hall (1788–1831) from a design mysteriously said to have been made by “a lady”. Over the years, admirers of the cards speculated the lady in question might be, among others, Caroline Herschel or Mary Somerville; but in 1994, the astronomer Hingley chanced upon a document revealing Reverend Richard Rouse Bloxam (1765–1840) to be the “Author of Urania’s Mirror”. Though, as Ian Ridpath points out, this may not be the final solution to the mystery: Bloxam’s wife, Ann (1765–1835), “was the sister of Sir Thomas Lawrence the portrait painter, so she might deserve at least a share of the credit as the anonymous ‘lady’”.

Multiple editions of Urania’s Mirror appeared in Britain and America in the 1820s and ’30s, during the first stargazing craze, and the card set has been reproduced many times since — even as recently as 2004, by Barnes & Noble (repackaged as The Night Sky: A View of the Heavens).

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