Space Notes:  Art, Poetry and Music

by Duncan Lunan

In April 1990, during Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, the 90s Gallery in Otago Street marked the 29th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight in space with an exhibition by the Scottish space artists Ed Buckley and Tom Campbell from Glasgow  (Fig. 1), Sydney Jordan from Dundee and Gavin Roberts from Cambuslang  (Fig. 2), plus Glasgow science fiction artist Brian Waugh  (Fig. 3).  During it, in an interview for Belfast radio, the late Matt Ewart of the 90s Gallery asked me how ‘space art’ differed from mere illustration.  I replied that it was like the difference between Constable’s painting of Salisbury Cathedral, and an “artist’s impression” of a modern building.  One was an idealised view commissioned by an architect, or in space illustration by a space agency or a manufacturer;  the other was an attempt to communicate what it would be like to be there, to see that view, and to challenge the viewer’s imagination as to what its significance might be.

The ‘Urban Spacemen’ exhibition was later shown at the Stirling Museum, the Orkney and Caithness Science Festivals, the Lantern Gallery in Stornoway, the Weavers’ Cottages Museum in Airdrie and the Coats Observatory in Paisley in 1993, and finally at the Edinburgh International Science Festival during the 100th anniversary year of Airdrie Public Observatory in 1995, with the addition of Kilmarnock artist Andy Paterson  (Fig. 4), whose solo exhibitions appeared at the Weavers’ Cottages, the Coats Observatory, the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock and the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine.  Urban Spacemen’s popularity, particularly with school groups, showed that there is indeed much more to space art than just illustration – and it all began in Scotland.

the surface of a red planet sparse of any life with another huge planet in view
Fig. 4. Andy Paterson Venus from Toro, from ‘Incoming Asteroid’

Some of the first known examples of ‘space art’, as we know it, were produced by the Victorian artists James Nasmyth  (the inventor of the steam hammer), from Edinburgh, and James Carpenter.  Since astronomical photography couldn’t yet produce high-quality views of the Moon, they modelled lunar features in plaster to produce accurate representations of them as viewed by skilled observers.  Their book, The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite  (1871), contained not only overhead photographs and perspective view of the models, but also pen-and-ink drawings.  The Frontispiece was a colour painting of the Earth as seen from the Moon during a lunar eclipse  (‘Scottish Space Writers’, ON 12th March 2023), a subject which many space artists have depicted since.  Their only mistake was that, not knowing that the Moon has no atmosphere, they didn’t realise how sharp lunar shadows are, and consequently modelled the lunar mountains and crater rims as much higher, steeper and sharper than they actually are  (Fig. 5).

a very jagged lunar landscape with a crater in the foreground
Fig. 5, Nasmyth & Carpenter lunar model

After them there was a hiatus of over 70 years before Sydney Jordan began drawing Jeff Hawke, the world’s longest-running strip cartoon, for the Daily Express in 1954.  Having trained as a draughtsman with Miles Aircraft, Sydney went to great lengths for authenticity, in which he had a lot of help from the RAF, and he also illustrated space news articles for the Express.  The strips were syndicated worldwide and he is still a star in Italy, where graphic arts are taken more seriously than they are here.  A later version of the strip, Lance McLane, was syndicated overseas as a new version of Jeff Hawke, and the total run of both comes to 10,209 episodes.  After the strips ended Sydney went on to film work, including story-boards for Independence Day, and continued to provide illustrations for books and articles including my Children from the Sky  (2012), Incoming Asteroid (2013), and The Elements of Time (2016).  Examples of his early work appeared in my collections of space-travel stories From the Moon to the Stars  (2019)  and The Other Side of the Interface  (2022, Fig. 6). 

In the foreground a very tall peak with snow on the top and in the distance in the darkness of space a big planet
Fig. 6. The Other Side of the Interface, cover by Linda Lunan, art by Sydney Jordan

Ed Buckley began painting in the 1950s, illustrated my first three books in the 1970s, and continued to sell his work through science-fiction conventions  (Obituary, ON May 15th, 2022).  Gavin Roberts was co-illustrator  (Fig. 2), and also provided the artwork for Extraterrestrial Encounter by the late Chris Boyce.  Andy Paterson produced a large body of work in the 1990s and after, much of which has been sold,  but comparatively little published except Fig. 4.  One of the latest talent to appear is the Ayrshire artist Simon Atkinson, whose work Gerry Cassidy featured in Issue 1 of Space & Scotland, Winter 2016/2017.    

Before ‘Urban Spacemen’, some of Sydney Jordan’s originals had appeared with Ed’s and Gavin’s at the largest space exhibition in the UK to that date, ‘The High Frontier, A Decade of Space Research’, which was held at the Third Eye Centre  (now the Centre for Contemporary Arts)  in October 1979  (Fig. 7).  One of the books published at the event was Star Gate, Science Fiction Poems of Edwin Morgan, including his new poem sequence ‘The Moons of Jupiter’, inspired by the first views of them obtained by the Voyager spacecraft earlier that year  (‘Scottish SF’ Fig. 6, ON 19th March 2023).   

poster with details of the exhibition. Mostly the image is of a large planet with its satellite moons
Fig. 7 Voyager 1 poster for The High Frontier

Edwin Morgan’s counterparts in classical music and jazz are Edward McGuire and Tommy Smith, with both of whom he worked on combined compositions  (particularly Tommy Smith’s settings of his Planet Wave poems), some with artwork as well.  Both composers have created other pieces on astronomy and space themes, such as Eddie McGuire’s Earthrise and Auriga  (Fig. 8), and tracks on Tommy Smith’s DVDs Evolution  (Figs. 9A and B)  and Into Silence  (Figs. 10A and B). 

Bert Jansch has space tracks on his DVD The Black Swan, whose title is the name of a starship, like Aniara  (see below). Traditional music has surprisingly few references to the stars, and what few songs there are about astronomy and space are mostly products of the space age.  Dave Goulder’s ‘Orion the Hunter’ was written in Scotland, and my ‘Campaign Song for Dark Skies’ is based on ‘Where Is the Glasgow that I Used to Know?’ by Adam McNaughton  (ON, September 18th, 2022).  The song about Yuri Gagarin which everyone thinks is by Matt McGinn, with later verses added about the Boilermakers inviting him to Glasgow, is actually by Ewan McVicar;  Matt McGinn’s is to the tune of The Best Things in Life Are Free, and also mentions Alan Shepard, but is about the Moon Race.  The best song about that is Buff Wilson’s Raiding the Moon, to the tune of the traditional Rounding the Horn, and was inspired by a Glasgow Herald story just after the Moon landing, pointing out that in the days of the Border Reivers, the worst of the lot were the Armstrongs and their chief henchmen were the Nixons.  Neil Armstrong subsequently received the Freedom of Langholm, but Richard Millhouse Nixon did not.  The song includes a quotation from Hugh MacDiarmid, another great Scottish poet who made use of astronomical imagery  (like Robert Burns before him), and who translated the epic sequence of space poems Aniara by the Swedish poet Harry Martinsson, after which they were made into an opera by Donald Swann.  

When I was at University, MacDiarmid’s scientific imagery in The Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle was most often cited, but since then Earth, Thou Bonnie Broukit Bairn, had come up more often.  A painting based on it hung in the bar of the Oran Mor at the top of Byres Road, in the days when I was a regular at the Michael Deans jazz sessions there.  More recently I came across the full sequence, representing the planets by figures in modern dress, at an exhibition in the Harbour Arts Centre in Irvine.  I met the artist and acquired the book, but unfortunately I no longer have access to the material, and if anyone can help me with the details I’d be much obliged.

Asked about Burns and astronomy, most people would probably quote the lines about the Aurora Borealis in Tam O’Shanter, but in fact the Bard was interested in the sky and his references to it easily fill a lecture.  He was born in the year of Halley’s Comet’s return, and was particularly interested in the discovery of Uranus.  (Catherine P Smith, ‘Robert Burns and Astronomy’, written for the International Year of Astronomy on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, first presented on 8th May 2009 at the Stirling Astronomical Society;  book, The Stars of Robert Burns, Circle Publications, 2009.)   Catherine Smith’s paper begins with the quotation “Circling Time moves round in an Eternal Sphere” from The Cotter’s Saturday Night, 1786, and with that, Tam o’ Shanter and the poem To Mary in Heaven, there is a remarkable crossover into visual art.

The death of my great-uncle Albert Hemstock Hodge, in 1918 at the age of 42, put an end to a promising career as an influential member of the ‘Glasgow Boys’, who was commissioned to create the winged figure of ‘Light’ on top of the pavilion, among other sculptures, for the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, and was the major sculptor for the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Manitoba, among many other commissions including plaques for the  Wallace Monument in Elderslie, and the national monument to Captain Scott and his party in Devonport, Plymouth.

During the First World War, unable to fight for health reasons, Hodge created the statue of Robert Burns, with four plaques on the base featuring scenes from the poems, which stands on Dumbarton Road near Stirling Castle, unveiled in September 1914.  The scenes were originally carved in plaster, from which the moulds were taken, from which the bronze plaques were struck.  I inherited the originals of The Cottar’s Saturday Night and To Mary in Heaven, which addresses Venus in the morning sky as ‘Thou Lingering Star’.  The figure of the poet in that and the statue of Burns above were both based on one of the few portraits of Burns during his life, showing him to be a lot more handsome than he’s usually portrayed.  Cold-cast reproductions of the plaques by Dalserf Heritage, commissioned by Cyrus Laurie in 1983  (Fig. 11), used to hang in Laurie’s Bar on King Street in Glasgow.  The originals were acquired by Elspeth King for Smith’s Museum in Stirling, restored by the artist Colin McQueen  (Fig. 12), and now hang in the meeting room, used by the Stirling Astronomical Society, which also holds drawings by Alasdair Gray.  The original of the third plaque, illustrating Tam O’Shanter with Hodge’s signature  (Fig. 13), is in the Tam O’Shanter Inn in Ayr, where it was rescued from a skip when the pub took over the site of a former museum.  The whereabouts of the fourth, ‘To a Daisy’, are unknown.

Alasdair Gray has an even stronger rôle in space art because in his later years he created an astonishing series of astronomical murals for the Oran Mor, featuring the constellation of the Zodiac  (Fig. 14), reflected in the mirrored tops of the tables below.  When he took me in to see them near completion, I was surprised to find that they included the constellation Draco, part of which is near the Ecliptic Pole, but is not Zodiacal. 

looking up at a glass structure with the stars behind it
Fig. 14. Alasdair Gray astronomy murals (Katie Andrew. Glasgow University and Oran Mor

Alasdair assured me that it was in the book he was following.  On investigation I found that the ascending and descending nodes of the Moon’s Orbit, near which eclipses of the Sun and Moon occur, were known in mediaeval times as Draconis Caput and Draconis Cauda, the Head and the Tail of the Dragon, respectively, even though they only pass near the constellation every 9.3 years, as the Moon’s orbit precesses around us  (Fig. 15).

diagram of the lunar orbit
Fig. 15. Lunar orbit, Ascending and Descending Nodes, eclipses

Alasdair Gray was patron of the campaign to save, and later to reconstruct, the stone circle in Sighthill Park which I designed for the Glasgow Parks Astronomy Project in 1978/79.  He had promised to create the long-delayed plaque to explain the circle and to whom it’s dedicated, and he continued to visit me in Troon to discuss it, even after the bad fall which led eventually to the end of his life  (Fig. 16).  When the destruction of the circle was first proposed in 2012, some officials referred to it as “nothing but an unfnished piece of 1970s public art”.  My emphasis was on its importance as a working observatory built on ancient principles, but if it’s now regarded as a work of art, completed at its new location  (Fig. 17), that’s fine with me.

There are a number of architectural features which could form parts of an ‘Astronomy and Space Heritage Trail’, which has been discussed with the Glasgow Planning Department and remains a possibility.  One was an idea mooted by Gavin Roberts as Art and Photographic Supervisor of the Astronomy Project, as a follow-on to the Sighthill circle.  If its radius is taken to represent the diameter of the Sun, the orbit of Pluto would be at the city boundary on Cathkin Braes.  All the inner planets and part of the orbit of Ceres would have been within the original Sighthill Park, Jupiter would have been at the ‘Steelhenge’ monument on Strathclyde University campus, Saturn would have been on Queen’s Dock, and would now be at the Glasgow Science Centre Planetarium across the river, and Uranus and Neptune could be on Maryhill Road or in other outlying parks.  (Even so, the nearest stars would be off the Earth’s surface.)  There is a similar scale model of the Solar System in Balgay Park in Dundee, centred on the Mills Observatory, and another in Anstruther, created by Norman Patterson, opened on June 21st, 2015, on the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice.

If the Glasgow trail becomes a reality, it might include an illuminated portrayal of the Solar System on a building at the junction of University Avenue and Byres Road – which hasn’t been lit up for many years, as far as I know.  Likewise, when it was opened, Princes Square on Buchanan Street had a working Foucault’s Pendulum, an exhibit demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, which I hadn’t seen in motion for years before I left Glasgow in 2012  (Fig. 18). 

The pendulum with a scientist poised over it
Fig. 18. Foucault’s Pendulum, Princes Square, Buchanan Street, Glasgow (Evening Times photo)

Another exhibit which used to be at the People’s Palace, then at the Museum of Transport where it was demonstrated at prearranged times, and is now at the Kelvingrove Museum & Art Gallery, is the Fulton Orrery.  It was built by John Fulton from Fenwick, instrument maker to William IV for a time.  It was the last of three working models of the Solar System which he built between 1823 and 1833, with 175 wheels and more than 200 moving parts.  According to the late John Braithwaite, to construct it Fulton had first to invent a gear-cutting machine to obtain the necessary accuracy in its movements;  and as all mechanical gears had previously to be cut by hand, that gear-cutter was an essential piece of ‘enabling technology’ for the industrial revolution.  In 2011, when I was doing a monthly astronomy spot for Falkland Islands TV, I filmed two episodes at the Orrery  (Fig. 19).  It was just after the Kelvingrove Museum had reopened, to a lot of criticism about the modern habit of mixing up exhibits instead of grouping them by subject, and in introducing the Orrery, I had to remark on its uneasy setting along with a Spitfire and a giant fossilised crab.  But the extra lights for the filming did wonders for is appearance and hinted at how it might look as the centrepiece of a space exhibit, which the Museum of Transport had previously intended it to become.

Duncan Lunan pcitured on TV
Fig. 19. Stretched screenshot of Duncan Lunan at Fulton Orrery, Falkland Islands TV, 2011

More ‘special’ pieces of space art are worth mentioning.  Anne Woods  (the wife of space writer David Woods, whose work I featured in ‘Scottish Space Writers’, ON 12th March 2023), is expert in needlepoint and has turned two famous space images into tapestries.  The first was the photo of Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt with the US flag and the Earth behind them  (Fig. 20), and the second featured David Scott’s demonstration that Apollo 15 really was on the Moon, when he duplicated Galileo’s gravitational experiment with a Falcon feather and a geological hammer.  The TV images of it are blurry, but the incident was painted by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, and Anne Woods subsequently met both of them when showing her tapesty at Spacefest VII in Tucson, Arizona  (Figs. 21 and 22). 

Exhibition posters are another unsung category of Scottish space art.  For the High Frontier exhibition the dominant image was the recent Voyager 1 photo of Io and Europa in front of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot  (Fig. 7), which was also on the cover of Edwin Morgan’s poem collection Star Gate  (see above).  There was a massive blow-up of it in the foyer of the Third Eye Centre, along with an explanatory panel by Paul Benson of Airdrie Observatory, which featured in an illustration by Sydney Jordan for ‘Galileo at the High Frontier’, a story which I was commissioned to write for Laura Brown’s 2012 retrospective To Arrive at Where We Started, and is reprinted in my collection The Elements of Time  (2016 – Fig. 23).

Black and white depictions showing people at the exhibition in historical costume from throught he ages
Fig. 23. Sydney Jordan, Galileo at the High Frontier, for The Elements of Time

But more recent space exhibition posters have featured original art.  The Ayrshire Branch of ASTRA’s ‘Vikings and Mars’ exhibition, for the Largs Viking Festival in 1995, had an original poster by Ed Buckley  (Fig. 24). 

poster shows a Viking longship and space vehicles and astronauts
Fig. 24. Ed Buckley, ‘Vikings and Mars’ exhibition poster, Largs, 1995

Urban Spacemen’s appearance at the 90s Gallery and at the Lantern Gallery featured two of Tom Campbell’s paintings, ‘Industrial Action’  (Fig. 1) and ‘Project Starseed’  (ON November 20th, 2022.)  In May 2017, the Ferrycroft Visitor Centre in Lairg, Sutherland, held a major exhibition marking the discovery that Lairg had been the site of a huge impact 1.2 billion years ago, among the 15 largest such events known to have happened on Earth  (Fig. 25).  The exhibition poster by Eilidh Price  (Fig. 26)  was in the retro ‘Space Tourism’ style of many NASA posters over the last ten years or more.  (For examples, see ‘Jupiter’s Moons’, ON September 12th 2021, ‘Asteroids’, October 3rd 2021, ‘Saturn and Its Moons Part 2′, November 7th 2021, ‘Kuiper Belt’, December 5th 2021, ‘Life on Other Worlds’, January 9th 2022, and ‘Exoplanets’, February 20th 2022.

No doubt there are many more examples of Scottish space art and writing which I’ve overlooked in these three articles – and no doubt there will be many more to come, so watch this space!

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