London: John Bevis, 1786.
Celestial Atlas. Oblong folio (19 1/4" x 14 7/8"), leather spine over marble boards. "Table of the Stars" in gilt on spine. 51 uncolored engraved celestial charts. No frontispiece, title or index page. Individual charts with printed arms of the dedicatees (either academic institution or nobleman) beneath each image. Each annotated with pencil, possibly by Richard Alexander, the previous owner. Plates are generally in good condition with foxing and minor staining. First and last plates exhibit comparatively more foxing. First fly leaf and plate I detached from binding with tape residue. Includes signature and embossed seal of the possible previous owner, Richard Alexander, Madison Square Post Office, New York City and the 'Philosopher's Library of New York', possibly his own private library. Pasted book plate with engraved shield for Bateman and another pasted book plate with a globe. Faded pencil markings read "John Bevis 1745 Mr. Wesley Secretary of the the Royal Astronomical Society". Manuscript note pasted on inside cover reads, "Mr. Wesley the Secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society informs me that he believes this to be the work of Dr. John Bevis about 1747. The work was never published owning to the bankruptcy of the engravers but some copies got into the hands of the Public. Mr. Wesley only knows of three one in the R.A.S library, one which belongs to the late Professor Adams and this one. The one in the R.A.S library has an engraved frontispiece but no name or date to identify it. It was bought...." The later part of the note is missing.
The "Uranographia Britannica" was based on John Flamsteed's star positions and Edmond Halley's observations of the southern hemisphere as well as Bevis's own transit observations of up to 160 stars a night made between 1738 and 1739 from his observatory. Possibly engraved by Dutch craftsmen who were at the time recognized to be the best, the atlas includes beautiful artwork mapping stars with respect to their zodiacal positions. It includes 48 plates depicting specific constellations with one chart of the southern constellations based on Halley's observations and the last two charts showing wide-field southern and northern planispheres. Each includes individual dedications to the subscribing institutions and individuals, dating these first-impression charts to 1747-1750.
Although the plates are based on Johannes Bayer's "Uranometria", the "Atlas Celeste" is considered superior to previous atlases of Flamsteed and Bayer as it shows many more stars and represents a more realistic and accurate mapping of the heavens. It was the first star atlas to show extended objects, many of which were later catalogued by Charles Messier. Messier added references to Bevis's work in corresponding entries in his catalog. It was also the last atlas to be ecliptic-oriented rather than using the equatorial coordinate system of modern star maps. In total, the atlas contains over 3550 stars.
Some of the most notable observations recorded in the Atlas include the pre-discovery observation of the planet Uranus, observed as a 'star' by Flamsteed in 1690, and the depiction of the Crab Nebula making its first appearance in any atlas. Both these can be seen on the Taurus chart (Plate XXIII). The atlas also includes three 'extinct stars', the first shown on the chart depicting Ursa Minor (Plate I) and the other two shown on the chart depicting Cygnus (Plate IX). The chart of Cygnus is considered the best classical depiction of this constellation. The positions of the supernovae of Tycho (on the Cassiopeia chart) and Keplar are also included. Unlike any other atlas before it, the Atlas Celeste depicts the position of nine nebulae, including the Crab Nebula, which Bevis discovered, as well as M35 which is usually assigned to De Cheseaux, suggesting that Bevis might be the original discoverer of M35 as well.
If the "Uranographia" was published in 1750 as intended, it would have been one of the great star atlases of the 17th and 18th century, when celestial cartography was based on zodiacal positions measured from the ecliptic plane, making Bevis a popular figure today. At the time, celestial maps were popular and extensively used for navigation, especially by the English Navy. However, with the popularization of the equatorial co-ordinate system to map stars by modern astronomers, Bevis's atlas would have become quickly outdated. Nevertheless, the Uranographia Britannica is still considered one of the great, yet forgotten, star atlases.
In 1738, amateur astronomer Dr. John Bevis began work on his most ambitious project, the compilation of a great star atlas, one which he intended to be called the "Uranographia Britannica". John Neale, an instrument maker or toy maker, was enlisted as the 'undertaker' for the project. What might possibly be the first mention of the "Uranographia Britannica" appeared in a newspaper advertisement in 1748, soliciting finances for the project through advance subscriptions. In 1750, as the atlas was nearing completion, John Neale was declared bankrupt. The copper plates, individually dedicated to the subscribing institutions and individuals were sequestered by the London Courts of Chancery and the project was abruptly terminated. However, impressions of many of the original plates had been made before Neale went bankrupt. Years following Bevis's death, a number of prints of the individual star charts made from the impressions, along with three nearly finished atlases, were auctioned by the widow of his executor in 1785. In 1786, an unknown number of atlases titled "Atlas Celeste" appeared on the market. These atlases compiled from Bevis's individually printed star charts bound together by an anonymous buyer, were sold at a low price as the "Atlas Celeste".
As of 2011, all three copies of the Bevis's originally intended "Uranographia Britannica" have been traced and identified. One is owned by the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, another is at St. John's Library in Cambridge and the third is at the Chatsworth Library in Derbyshire, England. Less than 30 copies of "Atlas Celeste" are known to have survived.
John Bevis (1695 - 1771) was born in Wiltshire, England. He studied in Christ Church, Oxford and later settled in London in 1729. He was a successful medical practitioner until his passion for astronomy led him to become friends with Edmund Halley. He assisted Halley in observing the transit of Mercury in 1736. In 1737, John Bevis made his second most important observation when he observed Mercury occulted by Venus, which to date remains the only recorded observation of the occultation of any one planet by another. He would go on to construct an observatory in Stoke Newington near London in 1738, from where he would make several 'astronomical' discoveries. Bevis was one of only two people who are known to have observed comet Halley on its first predicted return in 1759. He also observed and found a prediction rule for eclipses of Jupiter's moons. He is perhaps most famous for his 1731 discovery of the Crab Nebula, a wreck of a star that became a supernova, which is with modern astronomers an object of great interest. Charles Messier, the famous French astronomer and comet hunter would independently discover the Crab Nebula in 1758, 27 years after Bevis's original discovery, and list it as M1 in his 1770 catalogue. He would acknowledge Bevis's original discovery in later publications of his catalogue, after receiving a letter from Bevis in 1771 informing him that it was already known.
John Bevis began work on his most ambitious project in 1738 called the "Uranographia Britannica". Based on his own transit observations as well as the observations already catalogued by John Flamsteed and Edmund Halley, he set out to compile a great star atlas, one that would rival and surpass those of Bayer and Flamsteed, on which it was based. Unfortunately for Bevis, the project would run out of funds and the atlas would never see the light of day as intended. Bevis would die in 1771 after falling from his telescope while measuring the the Sun's meridian altitude.