Weekly Witter: Picturing the Camera Obscura

For seven weekends from the 31st of August this year, the National Trust will be exploring seven aspects of the landscape (Uncovered: the story of British Landscape). Seven properties (Attingham, Chartwell, Ham, Northey Island, Sheringham, The North Lakes and Wimpole) have been selected to present a different aspect or use of the landscape whether for agrarian purposes, woodland management, the management of large, self sufficient estate, recreation, reflection, inspiration or how environmental forces have moulded the coastal landscape. A wide range of talks, walks and demonstrations by various experts will reveal our landscapes from these different perspectives.

Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”

As part of this programme, I have been exploring the history and use of the camera obscura as a tool used by artists to capture images of the landscape. The phenomena of an image forming of an object when light passed through a small hole to create an inverted image of that object on a surface was first noticed by Aristotle. The earliest type was simply a room with a hole in the wall or the window blind which projected the inverted image onto the opposite wall. Johannes Keppler in the early 1600s coined the phrase “camera obscura” which comes from the Latin meaning “dark room”. Since then various types of cameras have been developed which incorporate a lens to focus the image, a mirror to invert the image and a ground glass plate on which the image is projected. The cameras were made in a variety of sizes from a large free standing box room to a smaller camera which could be fixed on a tripod within a tent like structure to the simple hand held camera.

The advantage for the artist was that it enabled him to capture the perspective of the landscape or an interior without using the more complex method of lines and vanishing points.  By placing a semi transparent paper over the ground glass surface, he could trace the image which could then be transferred to canvas.  Large complex scenes could be created by taking several tracings of different parts of the landscape and compiling them into one large image.

Various art historians and artists have attempted to identify which artists have used the camera obscura in their work as there is little documentation from artists as to their use of this method.  The most intriguing study in recent years has been the work undertaken by the British artist, David Hockney, and the physicist, Charles M Flaco, in their book,  Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. 

As part of Uncovered: the story of British Landscape, we are making a hand held camera obscura for use during the event to show visitors how it would have been used to record our stunning landscapes.

  • Christine Sitwell- Paintings Conservation Advisor for the National Trust
  • The Weekly Witter is a regular mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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