J.F. sends me three works on paper that he has hung in his domicile for years, and he doesn’t know what attracted him to do so. So he asked if I knew their backstory.
They fascinate him because of the sweeping perspective views and the primitive looking paint jobs upon the etchings. He was curious about the phrases, some of which are backwards.
The reason a person who makes his living off of lenses loves these works on paper, even though he had no clue about this fact, is that these were original peep show prints from Paris in 1750. They were viewed by the lower middle classes of Paris in Paris carnivals through little wooden camera boxes containing lenses and mirrors to enhance each image. Gasps of amazement were said to have gone up, as these were places only heard about, and never seen.
He has three such views: a view of the seat of Lodovisi, with part of Rome, a Vue du Canal du Bâtiment Chinois and Vue de l’hospital Jardins de Ranelagh, Greenwich, sur le Thames. They are not expertly colored, and the “registration’” is poor, meaning the print maker rushed them through the print process, and the paper quality is also thin and cheap for the era.
This is because they were amusements, not works of art, showing the unwashed carnival and fair goers of Paris the travel views that only the wealthy would ever be rich enough to see.
These views, in their little boxes that contained them (mounted on board, they were inserted, and a narrator would regale with tales of each view) at the fairs of Paris in the mid- to late 18th century and were wildly popular, and because they were, and got some hard use, not many exist today. They are worth about $400 each in the kind of condition of J.F.’s prints. They are scarce.
You will see that the title at the top naming the location is reversed, and when you see that, you will understand that this is because a central mirror in the cabinet boxes built to house and show these prints (through a peep hole) contained a mirror.
Viewing the image or object reflected by a mirror means that the mirror doesn’t do the “flipping” of the image, but the person’s eyes and brain do the flipping. An image reflected in a mirror bounces back, and retraces its steps backwards, so the backwards titles printed about each of J.F.’s three prints would be right side up.
The publisher’s address, as in most old prints from Paris, stated in the bottom left margin, points us to the family of famous and successful printmakers, the Basset family, in business from 1720-1865.
These predate images made and quickly colored for mass consumption (Currier and Ives) by decades.
Basset was located in Paris’ most famous street for printmaking and publishing, the Rue Saint Jacques. Thattstreet housed many engravers and printmakers for a century. The center of the printmaking world, this street was known for all levels of printmaking.
The Peep Show prints owned by J.F. were the low-level work done quickly, for consumption by the uncultured and unsophisticated.
These were early forms of travel photography as well as optical images. They were mainly perspective views, because, with tricks of lenses, mainly concave, the image could be flipped. A convex lens would then “unflip” the image.
So real depth could be simulated, and the unwashed of Paris lined up to get a view of the Greenwich Hospital, for example, something they would never see, or a view of Rome, or a Chinese-style pleasure house in the estate of a wealthy French Lord.
Another version or series of these peep show printers were devotional religious prints, which elicited tears, we are told.
When you think of all the moving images and intricate graphics that we see on our phones today, to be amazed, as crowds were, in the mid- to late-18th century by such prints as these is truly fantastic. It just shows you how we “moderns” are bombarded with imagery, like it or not.
There are collectors for such examples of early optic imagery, and I would put the set at $1,400.
And I find it a strange coincidence that a person such as J.F., who did not know that these were, in factm early travel photography of sorts, mass produced, would have loved these for years. History is strange. And images do haunt kindred spirits!
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s new book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.