V&A Dundee

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Scottish Design Icons: Kaleidoscope

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. One of our smaller objects, the kaleidoscope transforms the world around you. We look through it with Claire Yspol to discover a new creative perspective.

It’s dazzling.

No, seriously: if you look through one of the Lesley Barnes kaleidoscopes in V&A Dundee’s shop, you’ll see what I mean. Like many people, I had a kaleidoscope as a child, but this version is designed differently from the one I remember.

The familiar tube with mirrored interior has a clear sphere at the end rather than containing colourful beads. The spherical addition turns virtually any environment into a cornucopia of colours and patterns (this particular kaleidoscope is also known as a teleidoscope ).

A pink kaleidscope.
The Lesley Barnes kaleidoscope available in our shop.

When visitors come into our shop, it's only a matter of time before they discover this little device and start peering through it at their surroundings. In this case, that’s the downstairs area of the museum, itself a visually striking environment, with wooden panels and different linear elements all around. Some even take out their phone, use the kaleidoscope as a lens and snap a few pictures.

The kaleidoscope is an object with a rich history. Invented in 1816 by Scottish polymath David Brewster in Edinburgh to study the workings of light, a kaleidoscope consists of a tube fitted with angled mirrors. They create symmetrical patterns from fragments of coloured glass when the tube is turned and went on to become a sensation across Europe and beyond. You’ll find different versions of this remarkable device in the Scottish Design Galleries, including the original patent kaleidoscope from 1820.

A small kaleidoscope. Looks like a tube covered in floral paper with small roses along leafy stems.
A small kaleidoscope. Looks like a conical tube covered in colourful paper with a circus-like scene, including a clown-like musician, a seal on a platform, etc.
A small kaleidoscope. Looks like a yellow tube covered in many small multicoloured splotches.
A black, shiny kaleidoscope with brass at either end.
  • Kaleidoscope from around 1890 (© V&A Museum of Childhood)

  • Kaleidoscope from the 1930s (© V&A Museum of Childhood)

  • Kaleidoscope from 1994 (© V&A Museum of Childhood)

  • The original patent kaleidoscope, made by Philip Carpenter c.1820. (© The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, CC BY-NC-SA)

Intrigued by the idea of taking photos through a kaleidoscope, I tried this myself during my lunch break a few months ago; I bought the kaleidoscope virtually on the spot. As soon as I arrived home that evening, I started taking pictures of stuff lying around in my living room/art studio while using the kaleidoscope as a weirdly wonderful lens. It makes everything look mesmerising.

Black and white photo taken through a kaleidoscope showing abstract shapes and lines.
Black and white photo taken through a kaleidoscope showing abstract shapes and lines.
Black and white photo taken through a kaleidoscope showing abstract shapes and lines.
Black and white photo taken through a kaleidoscope showing abstract shapes and lines.
Black and white photo taken through a kaleidoscope showing abstract shapes and lines.
  • One of Claire's 'kaleidified' photos.

  • One of Claire's 'kaleidified' photos.

  • One of Claire's 'kaleidified' photos.

  • One of Claire's 'kaleidified' photos.

  • One of Claire's 'kaleidified' photos.

Sifting through dozens of images to select the best ones feels kaleidoscopic in itself. Which composition works best? Does that light flare add to the strength of the photograph or detract from it? A few days later my kaleidoscope even got 'smuggled' into the supermarket. I was self-conscious at first and hid it under a loaf of bread in the shopping basket.

It turned out to be fine. At least, no one chastised me for taking pictures through what must have seemed like a curious device. Oranges, limes and other products all got 'kaleidified'. I've taken hundreds of pictures over the past few months. Some so-so, some fine, some spectacular!

As well as playfully altering how we experience our everyday surroundings, this seemingly simple object brings together science, design and art in a unique way. When you next find yourself in our shop, feel free to pick one up and have a look…but prepare to be mesmerised.

Claire is a Visitor Assistant at V&A Dundee.