Mary Ward, artist, naturalist, and astronomer: a woman for our time

Mary Ward jacket jpg
The jacket for the 2019 edition designed by Brosna Press, Ferbane.

Mary Ward takes her place alongside the Rosses, Jolys and Stoneys in the King’s County/Offaly people of science gallery. Born Mary King, at Ballylin, Ferbane on 27 April 1827 she died in a shocking accident at Birr on 31 August 1869 (see our blog of 24 August 2019). On Saturday 31 August 2019 we mark the 150th anniversary of her death and say something of her achievements. So join us on Saturday from 3.30 pm at Oxmantown Mall, Birr. All are welcome. The book launch is at 5 pm in the Courtyard Café, Birr Demesne. The book will be general sale from 1 September at Birr Demesne, Offaly History Centre and Midland Book, Tullamore.

Born in Ferbane to the King family of Ballylin, and cousin of the 3rd Earl of Rosse, Mary Ward became a well-known artist, naturalist, astronomer and microscopist. Her mother, who was sister to the 2nd Countess of Rosse, was from the beautiful Gloster House near Birr. To mark the launch of the reprint of Mary Ward’s first publication Sketches with the Microscope, Offaly History, Birr Historical Society and Birr Castle invite you to a special afternoon to commemorate her life and work on the 150th anniversary of her death. Beginning at the Castle end of Oxmantown Mall, Brian Kennedy of Birr Historical Society will lead a walking tour marking the last journey Mary Ward made from the Castle to the site of the fatal steam-car accident near St Brendan’s Church, the first recorded road fatality in the world. The tour will continue to Emmet Square and to the former premises of F. H. Sheilds, the printers who published a limited run of 250 copies of Sketches with the Microscope in 1857. Brian Kennedy will continue the tour to St Brendan’s graveyard and to the Rosse vault where Mary Ward is interred before leading the group to the Courtyard Café in Birr Castle where Offaly History’s new reprint will be launched with the Earl and Countess of Rosse and members of the Ward family Castle Ward, Mary Ward’s descendants, in attendance.

Mary Ward 1857 microscope (1) - Copy
From the original edition, Birr (1857).

Mary Ward’s Sketches with the microscope in a letter to a friend, first published in Birr in 1857, is now a prized example of provincial printing and almost impossible to obtain. Since the 1980s the public has come to know more of her work and her expertise as a highly skilled microscopist. The gift of a microscope in 1845 transformed her life and came at a time when her cousin, the third earl of Rosse (died 1867), was completing the great telescope in the grounds of Birr Castle. Not surprisingly, this fuelled her interest in astronomy about which she would also write extensively. Mary Ward (née King) was born in Ferbane, County Offaly in 1827 and died in Birr on 31 August 1869. Her privately printed Sketches with the microscope ranks as the finest book printed in the county in the nineteenth century and is now deservedly reprinted for an engaged public.

Sheilds pic Birr BCA Rosse E.11.60 238 - reduced
Sheilds Printers at Cumberland/Emmet Square, Birr, about 1850

The reprint is a faithful full-colour facsimile of the original publication and features new introductory essays by Michael Byrne and John Feehan. It is the work of Brosna Press of Ferbane and much thought and effort has been put into reproducing this rare Birr printing by seeking to adhere as faithfully as possible to the original book, while providing new and scholarly introductions on Mary Ward and the extent of her achievement.
Offaly History has worked with Caroline Conway and Tina Claffey in creating a greater awareness of the work of Mary Ward. All of us are indebted to the pioneering research of Dr Owen Harry, the long-standing commitment by Birr Historical Society to commemorate Mary Ward in Birr, and to the exhibition of Ward’s work as part of a Birr Castle and Science Museum project in 1988.

030379 St. Brendan's Mall and Oxmantown Mall, Birr
Our meeting place at Oxmantown Mall, Birr

Saturday, 31 August 2019
3.30 p.m. Assemble at Castle end of Oxmantown Mall to join walking tour with Brian Kennedy, Birr Historical Society

5.00 p.m. Courtyard Café, Birr Castle, launch of reprint of ‘Sketches with the Microscope’ with introductory essays by Michael Byrne and John Feehan. Hardback issue and new jacket, €20.

Supported by Creative Ireland.

Mary King did not attend school or university but was educated at home by a governess. An aunt, Mary Lloyd, was married to the second earl of Rosse. William, the third earl of Rosse, was Mary’s cousin and she was a frequent visitor to Birr Castle. She observed and chronicled the building of the giant telescope in the castle grounds in the early 1840s. Through her famous cousin she met many of the most eminent men of science of the day. When eighteen years old her parents bought her a fine microscope which she continued to use and to demonstrate with enthusiasm until her death.

Mary became well known as an artist, naturalist, astronomer and microscopist yet she never received any formal marks of distinction. It should be borne in mind that women could not become members of learned societies or institutions nor obtain degrees or diplomas during their lifetime. It was very difficult for them to become established or recognised in scientific or literary fields until well into the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless Mary was the first woman to write and have published a book on the microscope in spite of the fact that it was very difficult to find publishers who would accept book manuscripts from women. When her first book on the microscope was published in London in 1858 Mary did not use her full name but was referred to as The Hon. Mrs W. She was to write three books on scientific subjects and numerous scientific articles while performing the duties of wife and mother of a rapidly growing family. Her book on the microscope was reprinted at least eight times between 1858 and 1880.

An exceptionally fine artist and painter, she illustrated all her own books and papers and also those of others. Sir David Brewster F.R.S, a friend of the third earl of Rosse came to visit her father’s house and soon she was preparing microscopic specimens for him. These specimens she drew and painted, and the coloured illustrations may be seen in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1864. She also made the original drawings of Newton’s and Lord Rosse’s telescopes which can be seen in Brewster’s Life of Newton. In 1864 Sir Richard Owen asked Mary to send him a copy of her painting of the natterjack toad for the collections of the British Museum (see illustration in John Feehan’s essay). Two of her books were displayed at the International Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1862. An article by Mary on ‘Natterjack Toads in Ireland’ had been published in a scientific journal, the Intellectual Observer, and this paper was reprinted in full in the Irish Times on 6 May 1864 with a very complimentary editorial comment.

Mary Ward Entymology in Sport Insect Maypole reduced
Dancing around the Maypole – no wasps then!

Her first microscope book (the Birr issue) carried no author’s name on the title page, but was signed off as M.W. It was reissued in a new format in 1858 by Groombridge of London as The World of Wonders Revealed by the Microscope. Telescope Teachings, a companion volume to Microscope Teachings, was published in 1859. Her book, Entomology in sport (1857), was written jointly with her sister Lady Mahon and was published in 1859 (copy in Offaly History Centre). Mention should also be made of her hand-made pamphlet of six pages issued in 1856 as ‘A windfall for the microscope’ and published in February 1864 in The Intellectual Observer.

The year 2019 is the 150th anniversary of her death in what is said to be the first motor accident in history. Dr Woods, the same as he who had four editions printed of his book on the ‘Monster Telescopes’, was the medical doctor immediately on the scene. Woods and Ward shared Birr printer in 1857 but they may never have met. The account of the inquest has within it all the shocking awfulness of every fatal motor accident since that time. Thankfully, we recall her now through the contribution she made in her lifetime and not her sad ending.