Under the Lens

The Stanhope lens—a portable, powerful, and cheap “help to the knowledge of common things”— circa 1830.

Rational recreation was visual education. Enlightened entertainment allowed for the legitimate indulging of the eyes in nondelusory patterns and mind-building shapes. International in appeal, this popular form of instruction relied on novel and sensuous technology. Here, however, was the rub. Optically communicated information comprised the stock-in trade of quackish hosts of prestidigitators, operators, schemers, empirics, entrepreneurs, and instrument makers. Rational recreation therefore was also the deliberate counterpoint to fantastic or irrational recreation. On one hand, the competitive leisure industry pressured the informing philosophical illusionist to distinguish himself from the deluding conjuror. On the other hand, popular educators relied on the same battery of stunning newfangled devices to attract the consumer’s gaze.

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French Postcards

A contemporary Stanhope rosary from Michioacan, Mexico.
Looking through the lens embedded in the cross presents a view of the Virgin of Guadalupe levitating strangely within a hazy space.

A seizure in 1863 involved a type of photograph that was particularly adaptable to pornography—microphotography. These tiny images, sold as transparencies, were impossible to read with the naked eye and were packaged with special magnifying viewers (called Stanhopes). Numerous patents for microphotographic techniques were filed in 1861 (by Martinache for “microphotographs of jewelry”; Regad, “Prints for microscopes”1862 (Brin fréres; Nachet et fils) during the peak of interest in this novelty. Caught this time with “micro nudes” were Guth and Laufer, who were middlemen rather than photographers. Other firms that tried to register microphotographs with the Ministry of the Interior had similar problems getting their images approved. The list of “planches sans ou avec texts non autorisées” in 1862 included macroviews by Dagron et Compagnie entitled Surprised Bathers, La Joyeuse orgie, L’ Indiscret, Léda; Voland’s micro Enlévement de Psyche and Venus et Adonis; and Villeneuve’s Le Balancoire and Le Hamac (all photos of artworks, which represented another type of illegal image). Some of these works were marked “á la condiction expresse de ne pas mettre á l’étalage” or “pour l’export,” which suggests that they were conditionally approved.

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The butt and the bogy

The butt of Gilroy and the bogy of Walpole

Disraeli once spoke of Shelburne as one of the suppressed characters of English history. Shelburne’s friend, Charles, third Earl Stanhope, is another. While Lady Hester has tempted not a few biographers both in her country and abroad, it was not till nearly a century after his death that the career of her distinguished father has found a chronicler. He has been hitherto vaguely known as a man of eccentric habits and impossible opinions—“the Quixote of the nation,” as he is described in the “Rolliad.” The present biography, commenced by his great-great-granddaughter, at length reveals him as one of the outstanding personalities of his time, an inventive genius of the first order, and a fearless reformer who played a leading part in public life for forty years. The son-in-law of Chatham, the nephew by marriage of Grenville, the comrade and then the enemy of Pitt, the protege of Wilkes, the formidable antagonist of Fox during the “Coalition and of Burke during the French Revolution, the valued supporter of Wilberforce, the friend of Franklin and Condorcet, Grattan and Price, the ally of Shelburne and Lauderdale in their opposition to the Great War and of Lord Holland in his championship of religious liberty, the butt of Gillray and the bogy of Horace Walpole, the hero of the youthful Coleridge and Landor, the oracle of the little band of Parliamentary Reformers who never lost courage or hope, the patron of Lancaster’s schools, the friend of Fulton and Rennie and himself an inventor of first rank— few of his contemporaries touched the life of their age at so many points.

(The Life of Charles Third Earl Stanhope by Ghita Stanhope, revised and completed by G.P. Gooch, 1914, p. v)