The Claude Glass / Polarities of dark and light

‘Polarities of dark and light. Eye of the ocean, the light we see….’ – These words were written to introduce a series of my works shown at Inverleith House, Edinburgh in 1995 – works that explored the ethereal qualities of salt and clear water pools lying along the Coromandel Coast of Southern India.

Over ten years later I find myself looking again and again into another kind of pool – not the white encrusted surface of an indentation in the sands, but rather the handheld pool of a black concave mirror.

The Claude glass. I first came across a reference to it on a typed record card in the Prints and Drawings Room. ‘A black concave mirror often used by painters of the Picturesque. Larger versions were sometimes attached to the interiors of carriages in order to gain reflected glimpses of the landscape.’

I was intrigued and set about looking for the Claude glass in the museum. From the moment that I encountered it I was struck by an unsettling sense of depth to its reflective surface. The surface did not seem really to be black but strangely tinted – just like looking into an inkpot or a meadow pond that gives no clue as to how deep or shallow it might be.

It was just about possible to detect that the reflected image in the mirror was not only condensed but also of closely toned hues. It lay with its hinged lid open. Handheld size, waiting to be picked up but frustratingly encased in the museum cabinet.

I kept returning to this object in my mind’s eye. It seemed to act as a foil, or the flipside even, to another object that has played such an important role in my recent work – a tiny Japanese folding paper teahouse or ‘Fire Fly Basket’, so-called due to the remarkable sense of light within its interior. A white kind of light diffuses through the paper windows of the tea house and its latticed roof – the starting point for a series of nine large-scale drawings, ‘Shift‘. (‘Shift’ can be seen on other postings and shortly “links” will lead you to a video of it taken in Japan).

Claude Glass 

The ‘Fire Fly Basket’ and the Claude glass. Polarities of dark and light. I talked at length with Neil Brown, a Senior Curator at the Science Museum as to how a replica of the V&A’s black mirror might be made – after some weeks it arrived swathed in white tissue. He also agreed to the idea of loaning an 18th Century Claude glass for the duration of the residency. For several months now I have been using these two black mirrors to explore the collections in a number of ways. Recently I have concentrated on the reflected images of tiny objects – miniature stage sets and folding books. A new series of drawings has evolved and this will form the basis of the forthcoming installation of my residency works, (Gallery 102, 14th Feb. – 27th May).

Claude Glass

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