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New Acquisition: Camera Obscura Advertisement

Autumn, 1997

THE Museum has recently purchased a small advertising handbill for a seaside camera obscura. It combines a distant echo of Renaissance natural magic with the penny pleasures of Victorian leisure.

Dating probably from the period 1886-96, the handbill advertises a camera obscura set up on the sands near the pier at Southport, a seaside town fourteen miles north of Liverpool.

During the nineteenth century Southport was transformed from a small bathing village to a fully fledged pleasure resort. When the pier opened in 1860, it was the longest in Britain and evidently served as a focus for surrounding attractions.

As an 1889 illustrated guide to the town reports, the camera obscura had many competitors: ‘Various forms of amusement are to be found upon the sands, such as switchback railways, swings, shooting galleries, stalls, photo graphic establishments, donkeys, and all the oddities which go to the filling up of "a day at the seaside"’.

But it was not among such ephemeral thrills that its promoters placed the Southport camera obscura. While only deemed worthy of parenthetical small type, the distinguished and remote origins of the device are nevertheless announced through the identification of the ‘celebrated Baptista Porta’ as its inventor.

No great novelty attaches to this historical claim. Contemporary encyclopaedias, histories of photography and science textbooks rou tinely made the same link between the camera obscura and Giambattista della Porta. But how many of Southport’s penny-paying customers would have caught the allusion to the sixteenth-century Neapolitan’s best-known work, the Magia naturalis, in the reference to ‘Natural Magical Illusions’?

The exotic hint of Renaissance natural magic was only one selling point among others. Patriotic and royal sentiment could also be milked: the instrument is dignified as a ‘royal camera obscura’ and trumpeted as an implausible magnet for Europe’s monarchies.

The juxtaposition of royal puffery (‘patronised by all the crowned heads of Europe!!’) with the down-to-earth anxieties of a restaurant proprietor (‘left hand side – don’t make a mistake’) comically suggests the real world in which the camera obscura operated.

Camera obscuras seem to have been a regular feature of British seaside resorts. Brighton already had a ‘royal camera obscura’ in 1824, and at Swansea and Margate they were later installed at or near the pier-head. The viewing chambers were often insubstantial timber structures, and owners seem to have moved the optics from one more-or-less temporary venue to another.

Southport itself had a camera obscura as early as the 1840s. The instrument advertised by the Museum’s handbill may have even used the same optics as its predecessor, which was set up in the simple surroundings of a tent.

Local newspaper correspondence of 1846 indicates how far the camera obscura could travel from the edification of popular science or the innocent enjoyment of natural panoramas. A notice in the Southport Visiter drew attention to the presence of the camera obscura on the sands. This initial announcement was quickly succeeded by a complaint that the camera obscura was being misused: young men were visiting the instrument not to admire the sights of Southport but rather to enjoy the beach views of women in their bathing costumes. While the letter purported to come from an offended citizen, it may equally have been an astute piece of promotion from the proprietor, happy to mine less elevated seams of publicity than would later be broadcast by this handbill.

The Museum’s advertisement assures potential viewers that they will witness an unsurpassable pinnacle of technological display: ‘A piece of Mechanical Science which has been brought to an astonishing degree of perfection, and it is admitted the force of ingenuity can go no further.’ But, hardly surprisingly, there is no indication of the instrument’s optics. Instead, the advertisement is much more richly revealing of the borderland between popular science and entertainment.