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About the Claude mirror project

a collaboration with Suzanne Matheson and Alex McKay

Over twenty years ago Suzanne had a research fellowship at the Yale Center for British Art. Alex was acting as her photographer. We were shown a newly arrived collection of watercolour landscape drawings, the 'fair copy' of Anne Cooper's 18th c journey down the River Wye, her original drawings would eventually end up at the Chepstow Museum. The drawings were elliptical. Someone said something like, 'might they have anything to do with those Claude mirrors Rev William Gilpen was so fond of?'

McKay had two things in mind, having canoed much of the Thames, and some of the Cam, he wanted to canoe down the River Wye, and this would be a perfect way of persuading Suzanne to do it with him. They did. And it seemed to him that the Claude minor was absurd, because one turns their back to the landscape view one wishes to see, and views it in reflection, altered to suit notions of the Picturesque. He thought it would be a good 'one-liner', a silly device that could be used ironically in some post-colonial-decolonizing art-making, pointing out the willfulness of European Settlers and their refusal to really see the land, and people, for what they really are.

We were not prepared for the uncanny beauty of a Claude mirror, nor the feeling that, when we visited canonical landscape viewing stations, that the Claude mirror resonated with many historical works.

4 Tintern x 4.jpg

What is a Claude mirror?

A Claude mirror is a slightly convex black mirror that was used to view landscape by Romantic poets, tourists and artists during The Long 18th Century. It was generally hand-held, square, round, rectangular, or elliptical, and encased in a wood and leather. It was used by turning one's back to the landscape view one wished to view, holding the mirror aloft, slightly higher than eye-level, and by way of fine adjusts of the hand, and whole body, left, right, up, down, one framed the view, excluding one's own reflection. It sharpens contrast, increases colour saturation and darkens shadows simplifying the image. It is a compositional aid, and with knowing the elements of the Picturesque, laid out by the likes of The Rev. Wm. Gilpin and others, it is a rather powerful instrument for finding, and creating views.

But Why?

That is always a good question. This is, of course, pre-photography. The only way to get an image of a place one visited was to draw or paint it, or have someone else do it. Artists then, as now, often had works of famous views ready at hand to sell, and there was a thriving print industry, including picture post-cards of a sort, but like now, especially through social media, one liked to prove and one-up one's fellow tourists, have an experience that was 'more authentic' and prove one had been to a particular place.

The Claude mirror, like social media today, carried a kind of social currency that one would carry back to the drawing rooms, ballrooms and other places of polite society and converse about. Of course one could bluff, or one could actually have such experiences. How capable you were in conveying an experience would often be the social credit you could accumulate. The Claude mirror, and the Picturesque, played a central role in polite society maybe 100 years, displaced mostly by photography, once it became accessible. Read your Jane Austin.

Besides, Claude mirror images can be very beautiful.

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