John Bevis' proposed 'URANOGRAPHICA BRITANNICA' -
An extremely rare atlas compiled by John Bevis in the eighteenth century,
discovered at the Manchester Astronomical Society in the late 1990's.
Photo: from left to right, Tony Cross, Mike Oates, Kevin Kilburn
All images © MAS
Dr John Bevis' intended URANOGRAPHIA BRITANNICA, a very rare star atlas, to be published in about 1750 but tragically it became lost to science. The copy
discovered by members of Manchester Astronomical Society in 1997 consists of original
plates sold anonymously for a quick sale as 'Atlas Celeste' in 1786. Only about 27
of these so-called 'ghost books' are known to exist. The MAS atlas is currently
[October 2011] one of only four atlases that has a complete, undamaged 1786 'title'
page inserted by the anonymous seller
in 1786 to promote his sale offer. Two others, the Heller atlas and the one at the
University of South Carolina, have original title pages in good condition but with
minor blemishes or a repaired tear. The atlas in The British Library is unique in
that it has been folded and although it has a complete 1786 'set' of plates, is not
in its original unfolded format. It has been suggested that the title/advertisement
sheet would have been removed after sale especially if the compilation was re-bound
to match the library of the buyer... in 1786, even one and a half guineas (modern
equivalent £1.58 British pounds Sterling) (as at 2017, equivalent value of approximately £100) was expensive and could only have been
afforded by very wealthy buyers for addition to their libraries.
We know that the title/advertisement page is contemporary with the 1786 offer for
sale of Atlas Celeste. The hand-penned original advert (running to two pages) still
exists at St. John's College, Cambridge, from which the printed sheet was copied,
engraved and printed on watermarked paper contemporary with the c1750 prints of the
star charts. It is possible that the almost as scarce index sheets were also printed
at this time, 1786.
It is detail like this, taking into account any damage to individual sheets and the
overall condition of the book, its binding and other factors, that obliges all of
the identified examples of Atlas Celeste to be considered as being individually unique
thus allowing a ranking in the list of known copies. The four atlases mentioned above
are the best examples known. The Manchester atlas is currently still ranked highest
in terms of overall completeness, lack of damage, and cleanliness.
We still do not know the identity of the anonymous seller in 1786. We do know that
John Neale suffered double bankruptcy in 1750 and again in 1758 and he died shortly
afterwards. After his death in 1771, Bevis’s library and (presumably) the pre-printed
star charts went to his executor, James Horsfall. It was after his death that Horsfall's
widow sold the pre-prints and three near complete copies of Uranographia Britannica
in 1785 to an anonymous buyer who in turn offered them for sale the following year,
presumably after compiling as many copies of his Atlas Celeste as the limited number
of plates allowed. The seller obviously knew the history of the ill-fated, never-published
Uranographia but may have been obliged to re-name it for legal reasons to disassociate
it from the intended Uranographia Britannica. For some reason, again probably legal,
neither Neale nor John Bevis himself could complete the publication after 1750 but
after their deaths and that of Horsfall, the anonymous buyer was free to offer Atlas
Celeste for sale in 1786.
On the CD-ROM there is a wealth of information including the discovery of the Manchester
copy, the extraordinary history of the atlas and why it was never published. Kevin
Kilburn also describes the first recorded pre-discovery observation of Uranus by
the first Astronomer Royal, the Rev. John Flamsteed, in 1690. This 'star' is clearly
shown on the Taurus chart. He also suggests the possibility that Bevis himself may
have observed the planet over forty years before William Herschel officially discovered
it in 1781.
All the pages of the Atlas are included as Windows .BMP files in addition to the
Adobe Acrobat presentation; these are located in a directory called "images" on the
CD-ROM. In addition to the bitmap images there are a few VERY high-resolution jpeg
images in a subdirectory called "highres". You can view all the charts on screen
or you may print them to get a paper version.
Copies of the 'ghost book' are extremely rare and many are incomplete but they do
occasionally come on the market. With a good 'Atlas Celeste' selling at auction for
around £28,000 [October 2001] it is important to know how the atlas offered compares
with the others. In an attempt to describe and list all known books, or sets of Bevis'
charts, Kevin Kilburn has compiled a list that is updated as and when information
comes to light.
If any auction houses, academic institutions or private individuals
know of any other copies of the atlas, or can provide further information on any
of the ones already listed, please contact Kevin Kilburn with "Manchester Astronomical Society Website Enquiry" as the subject.