Art + Botany: The Claude Glass

Art + Botany: The Claude Glass

April 19, 2012
Photo by: Claude Lorrain, Shepherd (left); Claude glass, V&A Museum (right)

Instagram has certainly been in the news lately, having been acquired by Facebook for $1 billion. But before there was Instagram, there was the Claude glass—a small, tinted, convex mirror that was popular in the 18th century. Toted in artists' cases and tourists' pockets, the portable mirror offered a transformed view of the scenery. It was a picturesque filter for any landscape, reflecting a vista with pleasant distortion and a subtle color palette. Devised as a tool for landscape artists, it also became popular with wealthy British vacationers—a world viewed through a Claude glass was a journey through ephemeral snapshots of softly-rendered nostalgia. Muted and misty or bright and sun-drenched, everything was a picture. 

A world viewed through a Claude glass was a journey through snapshots of softly-rendered nostalgia

The Claude glass was a sort of early pocket lens without the camera and it was held aloft to observe a vista over one's shoulder. The technology was simple: A blackened mirror reduced the tonal values of its reflected landscape, and a slightly convex shape pushed more scenery into a single focal point, reducing a larger vista into a tidy snapshot. It was named for Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), an artist who painted mostly in Rome, and became known for picturesque landscapes with soft color tones and details. 

claude glass

A modern Claude mirror at Derwentwater, The Lake District, England. Photo credit: The Claude Mirror and the Picturesque.

When Thomas Gray (1716-1771), a pre-Romantic poet, viewed Derwentwater in his Claude glass, he wrote in a letter: "I saw in my glass a picture, that if I could transmit to you, & fix it in all the softness of its living colours, would fairly sell for a thousand pounds. This is the sweetest scene I can yet discover in point of pastoral beauty.”

The Claude glass found ardent support in William Gilpin, an 18th-century writer who sought to define the "picturesque" in British landscape. An amateur artist himself, Gilpin lauded the use of a Claude glass, saying, "they give the object of nature a soft, mellow tinge like the colouring of that Master." Gilpin published annotated tours of Britain—itineraries that guided travelers through the country's idyllic vistas. The Claude glass was instrumental in enhancing Gilpin's quest to codify the picturesque and they were carried on tours of Britain and North America. Pausing at designated viewing spots, tourists would turn away from the landscape and lift a Claude glass to "take a view" of the vista. Travelers with a pencil would often make a sketch for loved ones at home; those without were left to remember the picturesque moment, and, perhaps, imagine a world with Instagram. 


Tintern Abbey, England, through a Claude glass in June. Photo credit: The Claude Mirror and the Picturesque.

Today, the Claude glass has largely faded into obscurity, though Alex McKay and CS Matheson are still fascinated by it. Photos, writing, and a BBC-hosted Claude glass camera feed are all here: The Claude Mirror and the Picturesque

Anna Laurent is a writer and photographer. Her work explores how we look at plants, and how those plants behave.