What a spectacle!

Lewis Walpole Library

If you are fortunate enough to have good vision then spectacles are not something you may give a second thought to. Looking at some many Georgian images and reading so many old newspapers it suddenly occurred to us that we hadn’t written about spectacles, so time to correct that.

John Cuff, Master of the Spectacle Makers's Company, by Johann Zoffany, 1772 (Royal Collection)
John Cuff, Master of the Spectacle Makers’ Company, by Johann Zoffany, 1772 (Royal Collection)

Spectacles had been around for some considerable time before the Georgian era, but they were predominantly the pince-nez type such as these

pince nez
Lewis Walpole Library

It is thought that around 1730 Edward Scarlett, optician to their Royal Highnesses,  of Dean Street, Soho changed the design of spectacles forever with his unique idea of producing spectacles of differing strengths and with ‘arms’.  Although many reports indicate that it this happened around 1730 The Daily Journal of the 20th May 1724 reported that he already started to use this technique of  ‘fitting spectacles to weak eyes by the focal length of the glass’ much earlier.

Edward had an illustrious career being appointed as the optician to King George in 1727, he died at his home on Macclesfield Street, St Ann’s aged 84 in December 1778 and was buried on Christmas Eve.



Spectacles could be purchased over the counter in the way you can buy reading glasses in the local pharmacy etc., or he could grind them to your specification, similar to the way you would buy them today from an optician. Until this time spectacles were simply designed for either the young or the old – not very scientific! The frames were made mainly of whalebone, tortoiseshell and horn as these materials were immensely strong and flexible.

Lewis Walpole Library

It took about another 30 years before the advent of what we would today know as bifocals, these were mainly designed for artists so that they could see their subject in the distance and their canvas close-up with relative ease.   The Venetians were always at the forefront in design and it was they who produced the first sunglasses using coloured glass. These proved to be very popular with celebrities of the day and so naturally everyone with an interest in the latest fashion followed suit.

NPG 412; Hannah More by Henry William Pickersgill
Hannah More (holding her spectacles in a case) by Henry William Pickersgill. National Portrait Gallery

Had you noticed that there are relatively few portraits from the Georgian era depicting people wearing glasses, could this be the reason?

According to the Lady’s Magazine of 1802:

In the last century, to wear spectacles was regarded as an unequivocal mark of wisdom. The nose which bore them was always that of an informed person. the eyes to which they transmitted the softened rays of light were supposed to have been dimmed by much reading and the head which they decorated and to which they imparted a certain venerable air must of course have been occupied by profound meditation and study.

With that last thought in mind,  it seems highly unlikely that this is what spectacles in any shape or form, were ever intended to be used for!

Bare breasts
Lewis Walpole Library

As this blog proved to be popular we have written a follow-up to it  What a Spectacle (Part 2).

The Rev Dr Thomas Sedgwick Whalley

Book Cover

We have the immense pleasure of welcoming our first guest to the blog, none other than Professor Chris Stephens of Bristol University.  He has given us the following information about himself, his excellent new book and the Reverend Dr Thomas Sedgwick Whalley.

Professor Stephens retired in 2002 after 35 years in academic dentistry spent teaching orthodontics and undertaking pioneering work in the application of computers to dentistry and dental education. By this time he was also a professional dry stone waller and had helped to establish a SW England Branch of the Dry Stone walling Association of Great Britain.

In 2006 Chris was asked by the Woodland Trust if he could assist them in  restoring the perimeter wall of their Dolebury Warren Wood  property on the north slope of the Mendips. The work, undertaken with the help of  local volunteers took three years to complete during which  time Chris discovered that the walls had formed part of the estate which surrounded Mendip Lodge, an Italianate house built in the late 18th century by the flamboyant Reverend Dr. Thomas Sedgwick Whalley.

Rev TS Whalley 1781 Aged 35
Reverend Dr. Thomas Sedgwick Whalley (1781)

This long lived would-be poet and playwright had married a series of rich widows, the first of whose riches enabled him to buy a house in Royal Crescent Bath which became a centre of social life in Bath at the end of the 18th century.

Mendip Ldge as it was 2
Mendip Lodge as it was

By 1790 he had built Mendip Lodge high  above Upper Langford looking out over Somerset and the Severn estuary  as  his summer retreat. While his life in outline is known from his letters edited and published by his great nephew in 1863, research over the past 10 years has revealed a far more interesting and complete account, much coming from his extensive correspondence with his friends Mrs Thrale (Piozzi), Hannah More, Anna Seward and the actress Sarah Siddons.

Hannah More
Hannah More
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785 1785. National Portrait Gallery
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785 1785. National Portrait Gallery

Whalley was a highly intelligent, sensitive and generous man who spent a large part of his long  life and much of his wealth supporting his beautiful and talented young niece after the tragic death of her mother when she was only 8 years old. This recently published book is one of very few to detail the long of life of a sensitive and wealthy 18th century man from the correspondence of his friends both male and female. Much of Whalley’s estate, which included Dolebury Camp now in the ownership of the National Trust,  is accessible to the public. A foot path runs past the remains of  Mendip Lodge which was sadly demolished in the 1950’s.

Chris also appears in the new film Hannah More which is due out early next year, in the role of Rev Thomas Sedgwick Whalley.

Stephens, C. The Rev Dr Thomas Sedgwick Whalley and the Queen of Bath – A true story of Georgian England at the time of Jane Austen. (Candy Jar Books, 2014)  ISBN 978-0-9928607-6-9. £9-99