Tintern Abbey Viewing Station (click for live Claude mirror view from the Tintern Abbey Hotel)

A succession of high-coloured pictures is continually gliding before the eye. They are like the visions of the imagination; or the brilliant landscapes of a dream. Forms, and colours, in brightest array, fleet before us; and if the transient glance of a good composition happen to unite with them, we should give any price to fix, and appropriate the scene.

William Gilpin, Remarks on Forest Scenery, (1791) purportedly while using a Claude mirror from his carriage window.

The Transient Glance:The Claude mirror and the Picturesque, is the unique collaborative research project of scholar Suzanne Matheson and contemporary artist Alex McKay. This hybrid project moves between the practices of scholar and artist, between the studio, archives and field work.

Central to understanding the Claude mirror is our ongoing use of it in the landscape as an artist and tourist would have used it in the 18th century. Central to McKay’s studio work, and our ability to show our audience what the Claude mirror does, is the landscape installation of a meter-wide Claude mirror and accompanying webcam. This work, Tintern Abbey Viewing Station promises to be the first in a series of such works installed in the Wye Valley, Wales, and elsewhere in the world.

The Claude mirror, a landscape-viewing device, is a pre-photographic optical instrument that was widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its popularity is closely linked to the rise of the Picturesque Movement. It was named after its ability to transform a landscape view into something reminiscent of a painting by 17th-century French artist Claude Lorraine. These small, black, convex mirrors, usually sized for the hand, were extensively used by artists and tourists to contemplate, reconfigure and record landscape. They were wielded on picturesque tours of Britain, the Continent and North America. In areas such as the Wye Valley or the Lake District, tourists would halt at proscribed Viewing Stations (maps and mirrors available at opticians, stationers, art suppliers and, later in the period, tourist stops), turn their backs to the scene, hold up a Claude mirror, and look at the framed and transformed view. The distorted perspective, altered colour saturation and compressed tonal values of the reflection resulted in a loss of detail (especially in the shadows), but an overall unification of form and line. The Claude mirror essentially edited a natural scene, making its scale and diversity manageable, throwing its picturesque qualities into relief and - crucially - making it much easier to draw and record.

The seeming absurdity of refracting and reflecting nature in this fashion is balanced by the beauty and seductiveness of the mirror’s optical effects. It is an 18th century ‘virtual reality ‘ device, having all of the charm and magic of the camera obscura, but none of the clumsiness. History has remembered the contradictions of the device, but lost the experience of its power and utility. The popularity of the
Claude mirror over 200 years ago is acknowledged by historians, but the very characteristics that once made it so popular have been misrepresented or misunderstood. This project begins by recovering the compelling visual and physical experience of the device - indeed it seeks to make that experience widely available again. It liberates the ‘Kodak’ of pre-photographic optical instruments (cheap, easy to use, popular) from the museum cabinet and sends it back into the world, amusingly at a time in which its relationship to handheld DVC and LCD panel devices is increasingly obvious.

Reinventing and reanimating the
Claude mirror dramatizes many assumptions inherent in the
perception and representation of landscape. The
Claude mirror references the relationship between desire and the fabrication of place, between the body and the environment. Unlike the camera obscura or camera lucida - devices that facilitate accurate transcription - the Claude mirror transforms the view from what it looks like to how it ought to look. Linking the mirror as we do with contemporary popular culture, tourism, snapshots, web-based security and surveillance technology, exposes the on-going mediation of nature through technologies of vision. It reveals the layered, culturally-determined nature of the gaze. It draws attention to the complex mediation between looking and mark-marking, framing and representation, as well as the many interventions that occur between apprehending and understanding landscape. Our project explores the opticality of an instrument with a complex epistemological status, a device poised between the practices of drawing (the hand) and photography (the mechanical/electronic eye). Our project is contemporary art that vigorously engages with and critiques its historical predecessors.

Claude mirror can be seen in person at The TIntern Abbey Hotel in Tintern, Wales, across the road from the Abbey Ruins, and online at Live Tintern Abbey Claude mirror view and on the BBC webpage http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/southeast/fun/webcams/pages/tintern.shtml.

The research team for The Transient Glance is composed of A. McKay and C. S. Matheson.

They can be contacted by email at ‘info at claude mirror.com’ (please insert @ and remove spaces, hot link removed to avoid spam).