Spooner’s Protean Views

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Firstly, sorry for the error in the last blog post, the second picture was the wrong one. I’ve now corrected it, so please have another look.

In the early 1800s, decades before the invention of cinema, scientists, artists and showmen were fascinated by pictures that changed in some way. There were a number of large-scale entertainments that used this idea to attract and amaze audiences, such as panoramas and dioramas, and we’ll return to those another day. In addition, smaller versions were made and are now collectively known as ‘optical toys’. This post is about one of them.

Mr. Spooner was a London based printer who, in the 1840s, made card and paper novelties which he called Protean Views. I don’t know why, perhaps you do. Each view comprised a cardboard frame about 10 by 8 inches, with a hand-coloured paper picture of a popular subject printed on it. Whilst nice to look at in itself, when you held it up to strong light, such as sunlight, a new image appeared, as if by magic.

Over thirty different views were produced and they are now very collectable. I have a few examples in my archive and this one is particularly interesting, as the subject matter is, at first sight, rather strange.

My first photo shows the view in ordinary light, a pleasant picture of Lake Windermere in England’s Lake District. The caption on the print says “Windermere, which on holding up to a strong light changes to a view of the viaduct of the Greenwich Railroad” and, indeed, when you do so, a railway viaduct appears, crossing the lake, as seen below. The Greenwich Railroad did exist but was in London, 300 miles south of Lake Windermere. So why did Mr. Spooner superimpose one on the other?

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The railway’s formal name was the London and Greenwich Railway and, built in the late 1830s, it was the world’s first wholly elevated railway with over 870 brick arches and ran for three and a quarter miles, long enough to theoretically span Lake Windermere! It would have been a very well-known piece of engineering at the the time and this view demonstrated the impressive scale of the structure.

This is one of the many items that I discuss in my lecture ‘Optical entertainments before the movies’, which I present for universities, fine art societies and various special interest groups.

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One thought on “Spooner’s Protean Views

  1. I would guess they were called Protean views after the Proteus, a figure from Greek mythology known for his ability to change form at will.

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