Mary Rosse

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Mary, Countess of Rosse

The Rt Hon. Mary Parsons, Countess of Rosse (née Mary Field; 1813–1885), was a British Irish amateur astronomer, architect, furniture designer, and pioneering photographer. Often known simply as Mary Rosse, she was one of the early practitioners of making photographs from waxed-paper negatives.[1]

Early life[edit]

Mary Parsons was born Mary Field was born on 14 April 1813, in Heaton, Yorkshire,[2] the daughter of John Wilmer Field, a wealthy estate owner.

Through her family she met William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse, then Lord Oxmantown (1800–1867), an Anglo-Irish astronomer and naturalist, and they were married on 14 April 1836. In February 1841, Lord Oxmantown succeeded his father in the family peerage to become The 3rd Earl of Rosse. Mary, Baroness Oxmantown, thus now became The Countess of Rosse.


In the early 1840s the couple became interested in astronomy, and Mary helped her husband, Lord Rosse, build a number of giant telescopes, including the so-called Leviathan Telescope, that was considered a technical marvel in its time.[3]

She was an accomplished blacksmith – which was very unusual for higher class women of this time – and some of the iron work that supported the telescope may have been constructed by her.

During the Great Famine of 1845–47 in Ireland she was responsible for keeping over five hundred men employed in work in and around Birr Castle, where she and her husband lived.


In 1842, Lord Rosse began experimenting in daguerreotype photography, possibly learning some of the art from his acquaintance William Henry Fox Talbot. In 1854, Lord Rosse wrote to Fox Talbot saying that Lady Rosse too had just commenced photography, and sent some examples of her work. Fox Talbot replied that some of her photographs of the telescope "are all that can be desired".

Lady Rosse became a member of the Dublin Photographic Society, and in 1859 she received a silver medal for "best paper negative" from the Photographic Society of Ireland. Many examples of her photography are in the Birr Castle Archives.[4] Much of the topography of Birr Castle that she portrayed has changed very little, and it is possible to compare many of her photographs with the actual places.


The Countess of Rosse gave birth to eleven children, but only four survived until adulthood:

Mary, Dowager Countess of Rosse, died in 1885.


  1. ^ For more on waxed-paper negatives, see John Towler, "Negatives on Paper", chap. 29 of The Silver Sunbeam (New York: Joseph H. Ladd, 1864).
  2. ^ Scaife, W. Garrett (2009). "Parsons, William". Dictionary of Irish Biography - Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  3. ^ "Birr Castle Desme – History of the Telescopes". Archived from the original on 24 December 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2009.
  4. ^ "Birr Castle Desme – Mary Rosse and Photography". Archived from the original on 26 December 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2009.
  5. ^ "Obituary The Hon. Lady Parsons | Women's Engineering Society". Retrieved 4 July 2019.
  6. ^ "Presidents Past & Present | Women's Engineering Society". Retrieved 4 July 2019.

Further reading[edit]

Taylor, Roger. Impressed by Light: British Photographs from Paper Negatives, 1840–1860. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. ISBN 978-0-300-12405-7.

External links[edit]