DIY Claude Glasses

When I was a pre-teen in the mid-1990s, I owned several American Girl craft books that were sold as companions to the dolls. Each doll, for those not familiar with the craze, came from a specific historical era, and (for an extra fee) arrived with a series of novels that told her particular story of being an “American girl.” The craft books were meant to provide both an insight into the material culture of the past and another way to connect with your favorite doll. The one I remember most clearly is Felicity’s Craft Book. A late eighteenth-century redhead who loved horses and hated her etiquette lessons, Felicity seemed like (as Anne Shirley, another bookish, fictional redhead might put it) a “kindred spirit.” I distinctly remember making coriander-studded oranges and carefully trying my hand at embroidering a sampler, among other examples of eighteenth-century handicrafts. It felt like building a daydream, and the results—no matter how asymmetrical or knotted—were enchanted objects.

That playful grasp at tangible affect has resurfaced in our modern DIY maker movement, in a wide variety of incarnations. Of course there is Pinterest and a long roll of craft blogs. But there are also a growing number of Makerspaces, on elementary to college campuses, where students can learn everything from decoupage to circuitry, to 3D printing. This summer, Nick Offerman and Amy Pohler debuted Making It, a delightfully breezy crafting competition show on NBC that often focuses on the maker’s imaginative narratives for the objects they create and their emotional investment in the process. When we make, we feel—and learn to see the world in new ways.

More than that, though, crafting is fun.

Last spring, I set about looking for a way to bring that sensibility into my classroom, to “make” the imagination fun and tangible for my students as we read late eighteenth-century debates about looking at nature.

I found the answer in Thomas West’s Guide to the Lakes (1778), the first tourist’s guidebook to the English Lake District. In the introduction, West makes this recommendation for what he calls a “landscape mirror,” more commonly referred to as a Claude glass:

The landscape mirror will also furnish much amusement in this tour. Where the objects are great and near, it removes them to a due distance, and shows them in the soft colours of nature, and in the most regular perspective the eye can perceive, or science demonstrate.

A popular artist and tourist’s toy of the eighteenth century, the Claude glass was a dark-tinted convex mirror, small enough to be carried easily, and usually kept in a velvet or leather case. Scenes reflected in the glass were said to take on the muted color palette and moody affect of the seventeenth-century French landscape artist Claude Lorrain.

As West emphasizes, the mirror rearranged the natural scenes it reflected into an orderly aesthetic that could be immediately comprehended and appreciated as art: at the proper distance, in the proper dimensions, and with the proper colors. The Claude glass is a technology for looking at the world, and the view it presents us with is a pre-mediated vision that reflects natural landscapes as if they had already been painted. With a Claude glass, you can have a constantly changing work of art in your pocket.

The Claude glass has been compared to an eighteenth-century Instagram filter, another technological toy for artistic interpretation of the world around us. Like the Claude glass, we use filters to compose alternate realities and imaginary views. But, unobscured by mediating layers of hardware and digital code, the Claude glass engages the whole body.

For instance, in October of 1769, the English poet and avid pedestrian Thomas Gray went for a walk after a late lunch in the Lake District. As he walked, he held up a Claude glass in which to admire the view behind him. Watching the mirror rather than his feet, however, Gray “fell down on [his] back across a dirty lane with [his] glass open in one hand,” scraping his knuckles but saving the glass. Enchanted by the new perspective this accident afforded, however, Gray “stay’d nevertheless, & saw the sun set in all its glory.”

While amusing, Gray’s willingness to take a tumble—and then check the view, just in case!—also models the kind of intellectual playfulness that I find in crafting. Though Gray would have purchased his Claude glass, his search for a charming picture is also an absorbing creative act as he turns the glass and scrapes his knuckles for an emotionally-satisfying payoff.

Delighted by the potential for sharing a tangible eighteenth-century “filter” with my students and excited about the opportunity to craft it for myself, I decided a Claude glass would be my first attempt at some grown-up eighteenth-century DIY.

How to Make a #Basic Claude Glass

The easiest way to get the basic effect of a Claude glass is to pick up your smartphone, make sure the screen is off, and hold it over your shoulder. The tones produced by the black mirror are immediately perceptible. But the flat screen does not quite work as a Claude glass because it does not shrink the view it reflects. This makes it difficult to discern details or take in the kind of pocket picturesque landscape that delighted the first users of the Claude glass. The Claude glasses I ended up making are not perfect replicas either, of course. Most Claude glasses in the eighteenth century were manufactured by artisans and purchased, not made at home. Mine, on the other hand, were made from scavenged slide projector- or tube television- lenses and acrylic paint from the craft store.

In order to make a Claude glass, you’ll need a small-medium glass convex lens, black craft paint, and a paintbrush—a fairly big one, or you can use a small decoupage sponge. These instructions from the graphic designer Jake Howe are excellent, although my process was admittedly much more slapdash.

A convex lens can be found fairly cheaply on Ebay, although it may take some experimentation to find one that is the right shape and convexity. After cleaning and drying the lens, simply slop black paint onto the converse side until it is totally opaque. This took a little work; the instinct to paint with careful brushstrokes worked against me. But after a few tries, I had a make-shift black mirror.

What to Do With a Claude Glass

Thomas West also offered a few guidelines for using a Claude glass:

The mirror is of the greatest use in sunshine; and the person using it ought always to turn his back to the object that he views. It should be suspended by the upper part of the case, holding it a little to the right or left (as the portion of the parts to be viewed require) and the face screened from the sun. A glass of four inches, or four inches and a half diameter, is a proper size.

On my test run, I had to make some adjustments. In Southern California, direct sunlight turned out to be too harsh. The glass worked best in natural shade. The saturated colors of Los Angeles are difficult to describe as “softened,” no matter what filter you apply to them. West was also right that the best glasses measure about four inches or so in diameter. My best glass was only about two inches in diameter, and while it rendered the desired effect, I discovered that it was difficult to discern details in the reflection or to create a more permanent representation, like a drawing or a photograph, based on the image in the mirror.

Still, as I continued to ramble, it was a pleasure to chase the suddenly palpable play of sun and shadow. An evocative ephemerality resulted: the artwork produced by the Claude glass is entirely of the moment, and the slightest shift in posture can change the picture. Thomas Gray’s tumble now seemed almost inevitable!

When I brought the glass into class, my students agreed as they passed the glass between them or tilted their silenced phones when it wasn’t their turn to play with the Claude glass. The mirrors produced new colorings and angles of the familiar college classroom and the familiar courtyard outside. Contrasting their experimental play to William Wordsworth’s (no fan of the Claude glass!) argument that poetry, not Claude glasses, should provide the “colouring[s] of imagination,” the class had a spirited discussion of his “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The glass established an enchanting tangibility to the abstraction of language and poetry, providing a similar connection to a text that I used to feel making eighteenth-century handiwork alongside a fictional character. For me, playing with a Claude glass is an extension of the pleasure I found in making it, as each little shift or turn creates a new picture.

Afterwards, a few students asked me how to make their own, and this coming spring, my plan is to do just that. We’ll spend a day in class painting lenses and another day reading poetry outdoors while pausing to inspect the landscape through our mirrors—and I’ll be sure to tell everyone to watch where they put their feet.

Jessica Roberson teaches English at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles, CA. She has published essays on diverse aspects of the material culture of reading, such as souvenirs from the graves of dead poets and Houdini’s annotations, and is at work on a book called Romanticism and the Making of Media Mortality. She is excited about this turn to craft blogging.

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