We art museum curators are often asked which of the many paintings for the time being in our care is our favorite. It really is an impossible question to answer, though from time to time you do think of pictures for which you have a particular affection that usually bears little or no relation to their importance to the collection as a whole, but which nevertheless make some personal appeal. So it is with this charming little painting on copper by John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810), Captain Vincenzo Lunardi with his Assistant George Biggin, and Letitia Anne, Mrs. Sage, in a Balloon, 1785. It is, in fact, one of two versions of the same subject by Rigaud. This one was sold by Otto Gutekunst, a partner of the old firm of Colnaghi, at Christie’s in London on April 6, 1916, and then again, in the same rooms, on November 27, 1936, by Kathleen, Countess of Drogheda. It was acquired by Mr. Mellon in November 1968.
In 1784, Captain Lunardi—a protégé of Cavaliere Gherardo Compagni, in turn secretary to Francesco Maria Venanzio d’Aquino, Prince of Caramànico, a favourite of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, and presumably for that reason Neapolitan ambassador to the Court of St. James—made his first ascent in a hydrogen-filled balloon. The event recorded here took place the following year, on June 29, 1785, or, to be exact, was an anticipation of an almost identical event planned for May 13. This, or the other version of the picture, was engraved by Bartolozzi, published by Mr. Bovi, and circulated widely the day before that projected ascent, which failed to raise all three adventurers, so at length Mr. Lunardi went alone. Bartolozzi’s print was then reissued by E. Wyatt in a slightly revised and better form to coincide with a repeat performance scheduled for June 29, in which, this time, Lunardi hoped to take with him as many as four companions—including Mr. Biggin, “a young gentleman distinguished by birth, education, and fortune, of improved and elegant accomplishments, a strong lover of science, and of a liberal and affectionate heart,” and Letitia Anne, Mrs. Sage—who on this second occasion succeeded in becoming the very first Englishman and Englishwoman to fly. In Rigaud’s version of both events aboard Lunardi’s splendid craft, the so-called “eagle’s nest,” Captain Lunardi waves his hat, Mr. Biggin checks his watch, and Mrs. Sage, seated on an upholstered stool, gestures with wonder and delight. This is not, however, what actually happened on June 29. After several aborted attempts to take off, it became clear that the balloon could not even carry three passengers, much less five, so this time Lunardi gallantly remained on the ground, presumably holding his breath, allowing Mr. Biggin and Mrs. Sage to take off from St. George’s Fields (at Newington Butts in the Borough of Southwark) and drift west and north to Harrow. Huge crowds of people watched, including the King and Queen (each using a spy glass). According to the New London Magazine I:4 (October 1785), p. 178:
It is perhaps a true observation, that there is no enterprise, however dangerous or difficult it may be, but the female mind can summons courage enough to undertake it. An instance of this we have in Mrs. Sage, who unites to the tenderness peculiar to her sex, that manly fortitude which constitutes the heroine. Mr. Lunardi having engaged to ascend the atmosphere, accompanied by a lady and gentleman, on Wednesday, June 29th, 1785, about 150,000 people, of all ages and descriptions, were assembled in St. George’s-Fields. The day was clear, and the sun shone with uncommon splendor; but Lunardi did not ascend. That natural politeness which all foreigners possess, in acts of obliging their friends, induced him to give way to the pressing solicitations of Mrs. Sage and Mr. Biggin, when it was found that the balloon would not mount aloft with the three adventurers: the master of the ceremonies therefore mortified himself by staying behind, and permitting his friends to make their visit in a duet to the clouds. It was about a quarter past one when the firing of two guns, within the circuitous space, gave notice that the balloon was going to ascend; and, in about two minutes afterwards, it rose gradually, at about fifteen or twenty yards from the earth, making its direction towards Astley’s Amphitheatre, against which it would probably have struck, if Mr. Biggin had not thrown out a considerable quantity of ballast. Being lessened of its burthen, it mounted with velocity, and got to an amazing height in space of half an hour, making its way towards the west, as if proceeding towards Oxfordshire. After continuing about half an hour in this direction, it veered something to the northward. The appearance it made was really beautiful, and its easy ascent gave the public such an opportunity of viewing the whole distinctly, that every spectator seemed to be perfectly satisfied. Mrs. Sage at first seemed a little agitated when the cords were loosened; but collecting herself, she bid adieu to her earthly friends, and mounted on a pinnacle of height which no woman ever before visited. They descended safely at half past two, in a common field, a little beyond Harrow on the Hill, about thirteen miles from the place of their ascension.and
Mr. Biggin is a young gentleman of good family, and takes a peculiar delight in scientific experiments. When Mr. Lunardi first ascended with his balloon from the Artillery Ground, it was the desire of Mr. Biggin to accompany him; but the balloon was found incapable of carrying them both. He was a second time disappointed on the 13th of May, 1785, by reason of some mis-management and confusion that took place in the operation of filling Mr. Lunardi’s balloon with inflammable air; the consequence of which was, that Mr. Lunardi ascended alone, but soon after made a rapid descent, occasioned by the bursting of the balloon. On Wednesday the 29th of June, 1785, Mr. Biggin, in company with Mrs. Sage, ascended from Mr. Arnold’s Rotunda in St. George’s-Fields. The sight was uncommonly grand, and afforded ample satisfaction to the numerous spectators. He had a pair of oars with him, but did not use them whilst he was visible to the people of the earth. As there was no valve to let out the rarified air, the only method of forcing a descent was by cutting the balloon. After a very agreeable journey they alighted a little beyond Harrow on the Hill, and were received by the young gentlemen and neighbors with the utmost politeness and friendly attention. It was the intention of Mr. Biggin, in the true spirit of enterprise, to have proceeded farther, after having parted with his companion; but he was prevented by the people about him.