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  • A Strange Camera Obscura at Blackpool March 21, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback


    The camera obscura was already being written about in ancient times, there is an Italian renaissance illustration of one as well: the best page I’ve found online, if you are new to this, is here. But I’ve recently come across a nineteenth-century example that I simply don’t understand. This comes from a very fine book of gypsy life in late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century England: The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy. The author’s father, pp. 25-26, used to keep a camera obscura on a beach. But what on earth is going on here? Is it me or the syntax or both?

    My father, at that time, had what they called a camera obscura. It was a six-squared building, and there was a white sheet inside, and a mirror at the top, and if anybody lost a child on the beach they could come to our camera obscura and Father used to charge ‘em sixpence, and you could regulate this mirror on the top and say: ‘Is this your child?’ and she could pick that child out. and my father would keep a Gypsy boy – a little Gypsy boy – to show her where that particular part was, and they were so pleased that my father used to get money like this.

    We are, incidentally, near Blackpool (pictured), the Sodom of the north-west coast, a late Victorian Vegas for the working classes of Lancashire and Yorkshire, a place where you can eat chip butties and hide under the pier with your girl: those were the days…

    Snap out of it, snap out of it. Back to the problem. The six-sided building is common with the camera obscura (not sure why): the white sheet and the mirror are also normal. If I knew nothing about beaches I would read this to mean that ‘father’ casts the light around until he has found the boy on the beach and then the little gypsy boy would go and pull the child out, but this is simply impossible!?! Please end my wretched uncertainty: what is going on here? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Just as a curiosity I should note that this was only one of several Gypsy entertainments put on at the beach. Some old women did palmistry, of course. There was a gallopers (apparently a roundabout where Boswell’s brother broke his leg in two places), the figure eight (I have no idea), old bathing machines that used to be pulled with a horse (wth?) and a ‘scenic railway’. My favourite though was ‘Father’s gramophone’. Apparently, Daddus would play a record and go around with his hat: what a way to busk!

    21 March 2014: Invisible writes in: I’m no optics expert or even an optics amateur, but it seems obvious that the father rotates the mirror 360 degrees so the entire beach area is visible to the parents looking at the viewing area inside. They spot the missing child and the boy goes to fetch the child. Is there some mystifying detail I’m missing? Like the Central Park camera obscura sign said: “representing a Perfect Living Pictures of all Surrounding Objects”  Thanks Invisible, I guess I just couldn’t believe that anyone who had lost a child would do this when they could presumably just sit on the hill and look! But I agree that this is the obvious meaning to get from the text.

    31 March 2014: David O writes in with some solutions to bathing machines and figure of 8. Thanks David!