What do these three things have in common?
- american pie
- the starry night
- an insane asylum
Need a hint? I’ll help you out by eliminating a possible answer. The correct answer is NOT “The Leviathan of Parsontown.”
But now that it has been mentioned, I suppose The Leviathan of Parsontown is as good a place as any to begin part 2 . . .
(What a masterful segue! It feels so natural, so not-forced, so uncontrived. Hank would be proud.)
the leviathan of parsontown
Even if you don’t know what The Leviathan of Parsontown refers to, the very fact that it is of someplace suggests that there is more than one leviathan out there. Other possibilites could include The Leviathan of London, The Leviathan of Sub-Saharan Africa, or maybe The Leviathan of Terre Haute.
Those are hypothetical, of course. I’ve never heard of The Leviathan of Terre Haute, although I’m sure it would be a fearsome beast. Moving beyond the hypothetical to myth, lore, and literature, we quickly find some examples of the leviathan that date back as far as the 5th century, B.C. Here are four of the most widely known leviathan:
(I’m not sure what common practice is regarding the pluralization of “leviathan,” so I am using “leviathan” for both the single and the plural. Kind of like “moose,” “sheep,” or “deer;” it just sounds silly with an “s” on the end.)
Four Leviathan (from left to right):
- Biblical, earliest mention in the Book of Job (ca. 5th cent. B.C.); engraving by Gustave Doré (1865)
- Anglo-Saxon art and poetry, possible first mention in “The Whale,” a poem in Old English from the Exeter Book (ca. 10th cent. A.D.); stained-glass “Hell Mouth” or “Jaws of Hell” from the Bourges Cathedral (ca. 12th cent. A.D.)
- “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” by Herman Melville (1851); illustration by A. Burnham Shute (1892)
- The Leviathan of Parsontown, built by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (1845); copperplate engraving (ca. 1860)
Looking at these four leviathan, side by side, I now understand why Lord Rosse’s 12-ton telescope (far right) was nicknamed “The Leviathan of Parsontown.” All of these leviathan are huge beasts with mouths gaping up towards the heavens. The visual similarity is apparent.
Before arranging the four leviathan in the picture above, I could only explain the “of Parsontown” bit. The title of “Earl of Rosse” was passed down through the Parson family, whose estate was at Birr Castle. The town was named after the Parson family, but has since been renamed Birr.
Leviathan of Parsonstown is the unofficial name of the Rosse six foot telescope. This is a historic reflecting telescope of 72 in (1.8 m) aperture, which was the largest telescope in the world from 1845 until the construction of the 100 in (2.5 m) Hooker Telescope in 1917. The Rosse six foot telescope was built by William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse on his estate, Birr Castle, at Parsonstown (now Birr in County Offaly, Ireland). |from Wikipedia
Like I said, I didn’t understand the origin of the nickname, and nobody seemed to bother taking the time to explain it. Before arranging the four leviathan above, I worked up the following illustration in an attempt to depict the nickname. It’s pretty worthless now, but I
wasted a bunch of time on it, so I might as well include it:
Here is a more historically accurate depiction of the Castle Birr, showing also the 3ft and 6ft telescopes Lord Rosse built on his estate.
I was sorely tempted to make an illustration of Lord Rosse “directing the conveyance of the great speculum,” since my only familiarity with the term “speculum” came from the realm of gynecology. I have no direct experience, but as far as I know, THAT kind of speculum is usually wielded by a single man (or woman). In Compton’s painting, however, there are five guys pushing around the speculum on a large wooden cart. Another guy stands by some fancy machinery, and Lord Rosse directs “the conveyance.” That means it takes seven guys to “convey” this speculum. And, because the telescope is so much larger than they, you could say they were “dwarfed” by it—meaning you could refer to them as seven dwarves…
There have been two movies released recently that retell the story of Snow White [and the seven dwarves]: Mirror Mirror (30 March 2012), and Snow White and the Huntsman (01 June 2012). This means that, in all likelihood, there is a lot of material available for me to work with, should I want to piece together an illustration involving seven dwarves. And a speculum. This had the potential to be an amazing bit of fantastic drivel. It was practically gift-wrapped.
Fortunately for you, dear reader, I resisted that temptation. I’m already detouring a bit too much by spending so much time on The Leviathan of Parsontown. “Snow White and the Gynecologist” would just have to wait.
This is what Lord Rosse’s speculum was all about:
Speculum metal is a mixture of around two-thirds copper and one-third tin making a white brittle alloy that can be polished to make a highly reflective surface. It is used primarily to make different kinds of mirrors including early reflecting telescope optical mirrors. |from Wikipedia
It’s just a mirror. The inveterate driveller within me wants to point out that a mirror also played an important role in the Snow White story. But nevermind that.
It might not have been magic, but Lord Rosse’s mirror was still pretty amazing. Check it out:
Parsons improved the techniques of casting, grinding and polishing large telescope mirrors from speculum metal, and constructed steam-powered grinding machines for parabolic mirrors. His 3 ft (90 cm) mirror of 1839 was cast in smaller pieces, fitted together before grinding and polishing; its 1840 successor was cast in a single piece. In 1842, Parsons cast his first 6 ft (1.8 m) mirror, but it took another five casts, before he had two ground and polished mirrors. Speculum mirrors tarnished rapidly; with two mirrors, one could be used in the telescope while the other was being re-polished. The telescope tube and supporting structure were completed in 1845. |from Wikipedia
TWO mirrors. The inveterate driveller within me wants to point out that the first 2012 Snow White movie was called Mirror Mirror. That’s TWO mirrors. But nevermind that.
Back to Lord Rosse. This explains why it took seven guys to convey the thing:
The mirror was 5 in (13 cm) thick and weighed almost 3 tons. This required a mirror cell to support and to prevent the mirror deforming under its own weight. The length of the tube and mirror box is about 54 ft (16.5 m); including the mirror it weighed about 12 tons. The tube is supported at the mirror end by a “universal joint”, a hinge with two axes, which allows the tube to be inclined through a large range of altitude and also to be turned through a limited range of azimuth. The azimuth range is limited to about one hour by the supporting walls that flank the tube on its eastern and western sides. The walls are 23 ft (7 m) apart, 40 ft (12 m) high, and 71 ft (21.5 m) long. A chain and counterweight keeps the telescope in balance, another chain with a winch controls the altitude. A rack and pinion beam underneath the tube controls the azimuth. This beam is connected to the eastern supporting wall, where it can move on a circular iron arc to allow the telescope to change altitude. |from Wikipedia
So that’s all pretty cool, if you ask me. The Leviathan of Parsontown was a great feat of science and engineering, and its creator, William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, seems like a pretty good guy. Not only did he use his wealth and education to make invaluable contributions to several fields of science, he held several different political offices over the course of his life. In 1845, the same year he finished building The Leviathan, he began serving as an Irish representative peer, meaning he sat in the British House of Lords as a representative of Ireland. This was a particularly precarious time in parliament because of the Irish Potato Famine, a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration between 1845 and 1852. Lord Rosse was so busy with relief efforts for the Potato Famine that he hardly had any time to stargaze; the Leviathan of Parsontown was essentially unused between 1845 and 1848.
But Lord Rosse did use the telescope a few times, including his very important 1845 viewing of the Spiral Galaxy M51, better known as “The Whirlpool Galaxy.”
the whirlpool galaxy
Lord Rosse performed astronomical studies and discovered the spiral nature of some nebulas, today known to be spiral galaxies. Rosse’s telescope Leviathan was the first to reveal the spiral structure of M51, a galaxy nicknamed later as the “Whirlpool Galaxy”, and his drawings of it closely resemble modern photographs. from Wikipedia
That’s a pretty great sketch, especially considering it was made in 1845. Compare it to this photograph taken 160 years later, with the Hubble space telescope:
The Whirlpool Galaxy and The Starry Night
Ok, so, we finally work our way back around to Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
Simon Singh, in his book Big Bang, says that The Starry Night has striking similarities to a sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy, drawn by Lord Rosse 44 years before van Gogh’s work. |from Wikipedia
I don’t know if Van Gogh ever saw Lord Rosse’s sketch, but the similarity is undeniable:
Lord Rosse’s sketch of the Whirlpool Galaxy (1845) appears at left; Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” (1889) is at center (the whorl has been highlighted); at right is a photograph of the Whirlpool Galaxy, taken by the Hubble space telescope (2005).
the adams place logo
As I discussed in part 1, I wanted to use the whorl from “The Starry Night” for the Adams Place logo—not literally, but I wanted something that was somehow inspired by or connected to the whorl. In 1845, Lord Rosse looked deeper into a starry night than any human being ever had. He sketched the result in black and white. In 1889, Vincent Van Gogh also looked deep into a starry night, and painted the result in brilliant color. He didn’t have The Leviathan of Parsontown to amplify his physical vision, but he had wrestled his whole life with his mental illness. His crazy was like the leviathan of anglo-saxon lore: the gaping jaws of a serpent, ready to swallow him whole into the depths of hell. Vincent had seen such darkness, yet his depiction of a starry night is so full of light. In the asylum at Saint-Paul, he had found respite, a reprieve from his endless struggle with the leviathan of his crazy. Understanding mental illness better than ever, he was unafraid, and looked up into that starry night with clear eyes. In a mystical, spiritual, artistic sense, I believe that his soul looked deep into that night sky, seeing deeper than even Lord Rosse had seen.
Am I suggesting that Vincent “saw” the Whirlpool Galaxy with his naked eye? No. But look at the amazing detail from the Hubble photograph; the enigmatic and beautiful whorls of “The Starry Night” inspire the same kind of awe.
The clean lines in Lord Rosse’s black and white sketch made it a good template for a logo. I printed it out in various sizes and rotations and worked on coloring it in with oil pastels. For my color pallete, I used colors similar to those Van Gogh used in The Starry Night. It looked nice, but needed one more thing to tie it to Adams Place as a logo.
I remember, I was holding up a version of my coloring, showing it to Ma. The paper I’d printed it on was thin, so I could sort of see through it. From the back side I saw the whorl spinning “backwards.” It was like a reflection of the image. And in it I could imagine the outline of a lower-case “a”.
I took a few uncolored printouts and taped them to the glass of our back door, so the sun shone through and I could better see the outline of M51. I experimented with coloring different parts of the swirl, trying to bring out that lowercase “a” that I’d pictured. I didn’t want to just slap an “a” on there, but I also didn’t want it to be so abstract that nobody notices the letter.
Ultimately, I decided to err on the side of being too abstract. I worked up the design on the computer and then selected exact colors from “The Starry Night” to color our logo.
The reason for reversing the spin was the letter “a” (for adams place), but I realize that most people probably won’t see the “a” in the final logo. It’s a bit too abstract. Even so, I like the idea of reversing the spin. I saw (or imagined I saw) the “a” shape when I was looking through the page, from the back. The reverse spin is what the Whirlpool Galaxy would look like if you looked at it from the other side, from some point deep in outer space.
We are crazy: we already have a different perspective, a different point of view. In order to debunk the myths of mental illness, we need to be that voice from the other side, to tell ourselves and others what things look like from here.
So that pretty much sums it up: the story of how the Adams Place logo came to be. We may change it in the future, who knows. But I love it because it has so much hidden meaning, so much backstory behind it. And I wrote all these words and made all these pictures because I wanted to share that story with you. Thanks for reading.