An illustration showing a diagram of a camera lucida, after a drawing by Cornelius Varley
The camera lucida was patented by Dr William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) in 1807. It is a four-sided prism mounted on an adjustable stand. Looking through the prism gives the user of the camera lucida the illusion of seeing objects in front of the instrument on the drawing surface beneath. The camera lucida is much smaller than a camera obscura, easily portable, and can be used in full daylight.
A variation of the camera lucida was invented by the artist and scientist Cornelius Varley (1781-1873). He named this instrument the graphic telescope and patented it in 1811.
The telescopic lenses of the graphic telescope allowed artists to change the size of the image cast by the instrument, and to use it to draw objects that were some distance away.
The camera lucida and its variant the graphic telescope were widely used by 19th-century artists including John Sell Cotman (1782-1842), Cornelius Varley, and his brother John Varley (1778-1842).
Both instruments were difficult to use and making a drawing using one was not simply a matter of tracing an object; the artist still had to translate the image seen through the eyepiece into line, tone and colour. The difficulties associated with using such optical instruments encouraged the continuing search for accurate and easy ways of recording the world.
The Market Place, Ross, Hertfordshire, Cornelius Varley (1781-1873) 1803
Church of Cheux, near Caen, 1818, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) For Architectural Antiques of Normandy, 1822.
Palais de Justice and the Rue St Lô, Rouen, John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) Watercolour on paper.
Left image: Portrait of Mr Grant, John Varley. Right image: Portrait of John Tatum, Cornelius Varley.
Bab Zooayleh, William Henry Bartlett (1809-1834) Drawing for The Nile Boat: Glimpses of the Land of Egypt About 1845-1849.
Camera Lucida Manufactured in England, 19th century Copyright Science Museum, London Science and Society Picture Library.
Portrait of Mrs John Mackie, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867) Rome, 1816.
A Woman Sketching a Child with the aid of a camera lucida, Henry Moses (about 1782-1870) From a series of 15 drawings of female costume dated 1818 to 1836.