Claude Glasses and Mirrors

At leisure, then, I viewed, from day to day,
The spectacles within doors, — birds and beasts
Of every nature, and strange plants convened
From every clime; and, next, those sights that ape
The absolute presence of reality,
Expressing, as in mirror, sea and land,
And what earth is, and what she has to show.

William Wordsworth
The Prelude
1805 — Book 7, Lines 245 -251

The "mirror" to which Wordsworth refers was the Claude mirror, an optical device used by many artists and devotees of the picturesque during the Romantic period, which includes the decade of the Regency.

Wordsworth did not approve of the use of either the Claude mirror or the Claude glass, both of which rendered views of the natural world in a manner he considered unnatural. But both of these devices had been popular in the later part of the eighteenth century and continued to be so in the first decades of the nineteenth century.

So just what are Claude glasses and mirrors?

"Glass" and "mirror" were used interchangeably during the Regency, and even to this day, to refer to these optical accessories. However, there were actually two different types of landscape viewing device, and here I shall use "mirror" to designate those that were mirrored and "glass" to designate those that were not.

Claude Mirrors

Though little known today, the Claude mirror is still used by some artists to enable them to achieve a more abstract image of their subject matter. This device was first introduced in England in the late eighteenth century, and consisted of a small, slightly convex mirror backed by black or dark sepia, rather than silver. The mirror might be round, oval or rectangular and was typically enclosed in a velvet-lined leather case. It was named after the artist Claude Lorrain, whose landscapes were characterized by a very painterly, soft-focus style.

The Claude mirror was used to view a landscape by reflection. In the reflection of the landscape in the mirror, much of the color was washed out so that the gradations of light and shade and the tonal values became easily discernible. William Gilpin, one of the originators of the concept of the picturesque, advocated the use of the Claude mirror when viewing a landscape, because it would give the scene "a soft, mellow tinge like the colouring of that Master." In this way, he believed that all of the distracting details and imperfections of the scene would be eliminated, and in the mirror the viewer would see only an idealized and unified image. Wordsworth objected to the use of the Claude mirror, as he felt nature should be viewed and accepted as it was, not romanticized into an unreal ideal. He found it particularly telling that those who used the mirror actually had to turn their back on what they wished to see in order to view the scene in the mirror. In using the Claude mirror, they were, in a sense, turning their back on nature.

Regardless of the opinion of Wordsworth, and many other opponents, the idea of the picturesque remained very popular, especially with artists and poets, right through the Regency. Painters used the Claude mirror to enable them to take in simultaneously both the foreground and the background of the scene they wished to paint. They saw the landscape in miniature in the small convex surface of the darkened mirror. Thus, they could assess the overall effect of the scene as well as examine the shapes and forms of the objects within it without the distraction of too much color. The Claude mirror had the effect of capturing an abstract of the natural scene, which the artists believed allowed them to achieve a more painterly effect in their work than they might if viewing nature directly.

Poets, like Thomas Gray, habitually carried a Claude mirror in their pockets whenever they traveled, particularly if they were out in the countryside. But these poets were not strolling through open fields and farmlands. They were seeking landscapes which they considered "picturesque," like towering, craggy cliffs, a glittering lake in a deep valley, or strikingly impressive ancient ruins. Once they found a distinctive landscape, they believed the Claude mirror allowed them to see a more romantic and idealized view of that landscape. This reflected and altered view of reality might then inspire them to verse.

The Claude mirror was not used only by painters and poets. There was also the "picturesque tourist," described as a gentleman or gentlewoman of discriminating taste, who actively sought out wild, primitive, savage landscapes. These untamed landscapes could be breath-taking, but they might also be emotionally and psychologically disorienting and daunting to the observer. With the Claude mirror, the untamed landscape is tamed and controlled so that it does not overwhelm the viewer. The search for these picturesque landscapes has been likened to the sport of hunting. But the tourist in search of the picturesque would capture their quarry in their Claude mirror, or if they were really ambitious, they might sketch or paint the scene they saw in their mirror as a souvenir of their encounter with primitive nature. Both the Lake District and the Peak District were popular destinations for those seeking picturesque vistas.

Claude Glasses

The most important difference between Claude mirrors and Claude glasses was that instead of being mirrored, the glasses were transparent, but they were colored. These glasses were typically made and used in sets of different colored glasses. The most common colors were grey, deep blue, and yellow. The viewer would peer through each different colored glass to see a different version of the landscape before them. With the grey glass, the landscape would appear as though shrouded in mist or fog. The deep blue glass gave the effect of moon-light flooding the scene. When looking through the yellow glass, the landscape would appear as it might when the sun was rising. There was also a hoar-frost tinted glass which might be included in a Claude glass set. With this glass, snow drifts appeared to blanket the vista.

Painters, poets and picturesque tourists all might carry a set of Claude glasses through which they could view different aspects of the same landscape. The primary reason for the use of these glasses was that they enabled anyone viewing a landscape to see it at different times of the day, or different seasons of the year. Thus they could condense hours, even months of differing light effects into a single morning’s or afternoon’s viewing. Yet again, the human spectator is able to control and manipulate the untamed natural landscape, as could be done with the Claude mirror.

The fascination with the picturesque, and thus the vogue for both Claude mirrors and Claude glasses began to decline by the middle of the nineteenth century. By then, there was a greater emphasis on the accurate representation of the natural world. Artists ceased to romanticize landscapes and instead put on their canvases what they actually saw before them, doing their best to render the light and color as naturally as possible, without the use of any optical gadgets. But during the Regency, there were still many devotees of the picturesque, and many of them owned a Claude mirror, a set of Claude glasses, or both. There is documentary evidence that some of the more enthusiastic artists and tourists had mirrors or glasses made large enough to be fitted to the side of a carriage window. In this way, all of the passing scenery could be romanticized as the carriage traveled along.

The use of these optical accessories may seem rather strange to us today, when television travel programs abound which show landscapes across the globe in all their many aspects, or one can snap a view with a digital camera and manipulate the image with software to produce any aspect one pleases. But in the Regency, such things were not even a twinkle in the eye of a clever inventor. Yet many people did want to enjoy a variety of views when they traveled to areas known to be picturesque, especially since many of those sites were difficult and expensive to reach. The use of a Claude mirror or Claude glasses made it possible for them to get the most out of the experience. There are letters and journal entries which suggest many people may have even experimented with such devices closer to home, just to see different views of a familiar landscape.

It would seem to me that these optical gadgets have potential as props in Regency novels. Imagine the heroine ostensibly using a Claude mirror to paint a watercolor of a landscape when in fact she is observing someone she suspects of some dastardly deed, or keeping tabs on the hero. The Claude mirror could be a convenient hiding place for a small, secret missive, placed under the glass, inside the case. Or, imagine some eccentric elderly lady who has a Claude glass or two fitted in her carriage windows so that everything she sees as she travels is idealized and romanticized. Might she go to even greater lengths and have Claude glasses installed in some of the windows in her home?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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