11203 ENGRAVING OF CAPTAIN VINCENTE LUNARDI IN HIS BALLOON WITH GEORGE BIGGIN AND LETITIA ANN SAGE Continental. Late Eighteenth Century. Measurements: Height: 19 1/2″ (49.5 cm) Width: 13 1/2″ (34.3 cm)
Engraved image depicting three passengers in a hot air balloon.
See text for inscription.
William A.M. Burden Estate
This late eighteenth century engraving depicts a trio of passengers aboard an “aerostatic machine” invented by the pioneering Italian balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi (1754-1806), known as “The Daredevil Aeronaut.”
Lunardi came from a family of minor nobility, and after travelling in France as a young man he returned home to Italy and entered diplomatic service as the secretary to Prince Caramancio, the Neapolitan Ambassador to England. While in Britain, Lunardi’s interest in science and innovation developed, fueled by the growing ballooning craze across Europe, and would continue throughout his life. He was the first person to demonstrate balloon flight in England, and made several subsequent flights in his lifetime in Great Britain, as well as in Spain, Italy and Portugal. Lunardi is also credited with developing what he called an “aquatic machine,” essentially a one-person lifeboat with steering oar to prevent shipwreck, and balloon-wreck, victims from drowning.
English interest had been piqued by the succession of eighteenth century balloon flights made in France, and later Scotland, however, skepticism among its countrymen remained. Lunardi took this opportunity to plan the first ascent on English soil along with his friend George Biggin, a wealthy young student with a passion for literary and scientific pursuits. Biggin provided the financial backing, and it was the intention that both men would participate in the flight in a hydrogen-powered balloon.
The ascent took place on the Artillery ground at Moorfields on September 15, 1784 among a large London crowd of over 200,000 people including, most notably, the Prince of Wales. The balloon’s envelope, painted with red and blue stripes, inflated slowly before the impatient crowd. Although it had not fully expanded, the flight could not be delayed any longer, and as a result the balloon would not support the full weight of both men. Lunardi was given the honor of piloting the aerostat, ascending with a pigeon, a dog and a cat, and traveling safely twenty-four miles to Hertfordshire. Afterward the balloon was exhibited to the public in the Pantheon in Oxford Street (figure 1).
Lunardi’s second flight was set to take place in St. George Fields on 29 June 1795, once again with the company of Biggin. This balloon was decorated with the Union Flag and British coat of arms. The actress Letitia Ann Sage and a certain Colonel Hastings were also invited to participate, but once again the aerostat was incapable of supporting the weight of all four passengers. Out of consideration for his friend, Lunardi abstained from the flight along with Col. Hastings, sending up only Mr. Biggin and Ms. Sage, who consequently became the first English female aeronaut.
The flight was recoreded by British artist Julius Caesar Ibbetson in an oil painting entitled George Biggins’ Ascent in Lunardi’ Balloon, 1785 (figure 2) (today in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich). However, because there was a desire to publish images of the flight on the day of the ascent, it was also prematurely, and therefore inaccurately, rendered. A painting (and a subsequent engraving) by John Francis Rigaud (1742-1810) entitled “Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Mrs. Letitia Anne Sage, in a Balloon” (figure 3) was executed, showing the three passengers in the basket together although this never transpired.
The present engraving also shows Lunardi, Biggin and Sage in the balloon. Furthermore, it belongs to a specific edition of the print in which the caption mistakenly blends the details of the St. George Field’s flight with those of Lunardi’s third flight. The Spanish inscription reads:
A copy of the 3rd Aerostatic machine built by Captain Don Vicente Lunardi, in which he rose in London in the company of the Gentleman Mr. Biggin and Madame Sage, whom he landed happily after having flown 14 leagues; Lunardi continued afterwards alone, and descended 5 leagues further on to the country house of his Friend Baron Dick. He rose again and passed over the City of Chester, and finally went down to Tarpoly Castle, having flown 40 leagues of Atmosphere in less than four hours.
The engraving represents “a Spanish copy of an English print of the balloon [by J. Jones], the inscription of which has evidently confused this ascent with a voyage from Liverpool, six weeks later, undertaken by Mr. Lunardi alone, and which also introduces an entirely mythical person (so far as can be discovered) in ‘Baron Dick’.”1
This picture, along with four others forming a group, represents a period in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century when all of Europe, and France in particular, became preoccupied with the hot air balloon experiments made by inventors and early aeronauts, and it formerly belonged to the William A.M. Burden collection (as described in Carlton Hobbs Inventory No. 11201).
- Marsh, W L. Aeronautical Prints & Drawings. London: Halton and Truscott Smith, Ltd, 1924. 25.