19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, No 17 (2013)

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Specular Reflections: John Brett and the Mirror of Venus

James Mussell


When John Brett, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and astronomer, presented his theory of specular reflection in Venus to the Royal Astronomical Society, he provoked a controversy over both the constitution of the planet and the learned society. Brett thought Venus was most likely a ball of molten metal enclosed in a glass envelope and this raised the tantalizing possibility that it might function as a mirror, reflecting back an image of the earth. A few months later another Mirror of Venus was displayed at the Grosvenor Gallery. The surface of Edward Burne-Jones's painting provides a different model of reflection but one that illuminates the space of the Royal Astronomical Society and the practice of astronomy more broadly. Using Burne-Jones’s painting as a point of comparison, I argue that Brett’s astronomy put into play a desiring, viewing subject that was disavowed in his landscape art.

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