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Review: Through the Looking Glasses by Travis Elborough. A guest post by LH Member Laurence Scales, @LWalksLondon

through the looking glassesThe author, Travis Elborough, is a writer mining his enthusiasms, judging by his previous books on vinyl records, Routemaster buses and urban parks which I have not yet had the pleasure of reading. I am all in favour of enthusiasms, especially niche ones and was happy to go along for the ride with his new book, on our eyewear; part history, part ode.
Elborough’s Through the Looking Glasses is a book on all things spectacular: pince-nez, magnifying glasses, monocles, sunglasses, lorgnettes, glass eyes, contact lenses, browlines, aviators and deliberately unfashionable NHS frames. And he does not omit their spring-loaded cases that would not be underpowered for a rat trap. There is even a glimpse of the future. Google Glasses are not dead yet.

But this is not just a book about glass, bone, horn and plastic, nor optical and medical history. Glasses are items of intimate, next-to-the-skin apparel, and therefore there is a social dimension to their story too. To capture the range of this book, we glimpse on the one hand to Marilyn Monroe playing a myope in How to Marry a Millionaire, groping for the door of her dressing room, and in real life marrying the playwright and intellectual, spectacle-wearing Arthur Miller. Picture on the other hand, that you have that same owlish look as Miller, but you are in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and denounced as an intellectual for nothing more than wearing glasses, and are taken out to be shot.

About half of this book follows the gradual steps by which the science and craft of lens making advanced. The first thing to catch my eye was the idea that spectacles made their first appearance c.1290 as possibly the unintended by-product of an appetite for another kind of spectacle, the holy relic. Such were the scrums of pious humanity all trying to glimpse a holy molar, or a martyr’s metacarpal, that the church authorities soon caught on to the need to have some way of magnifying them, so that they could be seen from behind the barrier rope.

From about 1290, people wealthy and comfortable enough in a profession to survive beyond the vigour of their youth could have their useful life extended by spectacles that did away with presbyopia, that difficulty with close reading that comes with age. It was a long time before those daunted by focusing at a distance were similarly aided. The second half of the book concerns that period after which we all became vain and effete (around 1900), and is more squarely social history. In other words, the focus moves from the lenses to the frames, infirmities to fashions, irises to icons.
With even a few paragraphs on spinster librarians,this is a very eclectic book, stretching my normal range of interests, so I may not do it full justice, I fear. Any musical turns including The Beatles I mentally lump together as ‘popular beat combos’. But, for those that are interested, this book discusses spectacle wearers such as Elton John and John Lennon. Recall that Elborough also has an enthusiasm for vinyl. Therefore, there were a few passages with which I struggled. Here’s one.

‘Brubeck’s subsequent fascination with time signatures, producing with the bespectacled Professor Yaffle-esque saxophonist Paul Desmond such surprisingly toe-tapping numbers as “Blue Rondo la Turque” in 9/8 and “Take Five” in 5/4, saw the group move into the positively head-scratching realm of albums themed around asymmetrical mathematics metres.’

But this is mostly an easy read. I shall file away my new knowledge of Buddy Holly’s eyesight for a pub quiz some time.

Is the book Londony enough for London Historians? Although it ranges from Pisa to Buffalo, and from Morez ‘the eye-wear capital of France’ to Guangdong where the spectacle makers of the 18th century ‘did not seem to understand any optical principles for forming them,’ it frequently comes back to London. On the London Stone the guilds shattered the lenses from rogue makers. Eye trouble caused Samuel Pepys to give up writing his diary. Greenwich astronomer George Biddell Airy first corrected astigmatism with a cylindrical lens for his own beady eye. Moorfields Eye Hospital became the model for similar institutions worldwide. Some NHS glasses were made in Hackney Wick. I had a review copy of the book, and I think that means that proof reading was still going on. I was dismayed to find the Royal Institution downgraded (not for the first time) to being an ‘Institute’. But I was impressed that its mention derived from Dr Richard Liebreich giving a lecture there in 1872 discussing the cataracts that perhaps clouded the vision of J. M. W. Turner. Not many people know that. And Michael Caine features too.

BatemanOpticiansShop-BOALibraryCollection_500

G C Bateman Opticians Shop in the Strand.

The book is illustrated, though the text cries out for more illustrations. I know from my own scribblings that unless you have the sales figures of David Attenborough then copyright and jealous rights holders make it practically impossible to give a book the illustrations it deserves. Luckily we have our smart phones and you may like to keep yours handy to check out the visages, as they come up, of Arthur Miller, Le Corbusier, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pope Leo X, and Bo Diddley.
The typeface will not daunt the presbyopic among you. I learnt a new term for that condition here, which I rather like, coined by a Victorian master optician: ‘Bradshaw blind,’ after the timetable.

Elborough acknowledges help from the College of Optometrists in Craven Street, and I certainly recommend a visit there, to their museum, at the next London Open House weekend. But perhaps read this book first, so that you can view it through a new, more powerful lens.

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Through the Looking Glasses by Travis Elborough, 352 pp with illustrations, is published by Little, Brown on 8 July 2021 with a cover price of £16.99 but available for less. Available to pre-order now.