An old woman in spectacles attends to a mother and her sick baby. Her spectacles are probably a later version of Martin’s Margins, considered by their inventor to be ‘the Medicines of the Eyes’...but that was a hundred years before!
It is some attainment to invent a type of spectacles that would continue to be worn, by a wide section of British Society, for the best part of a century. The MusEYEum can illustrate just such an achievement, with both examples, and illustrations, of the type called 'Visual Glasses', known to historians today as, 'Martin's Margins'. Their inventor, Benjamin Martin (1704-1782) was not successful to begin with, but nevertheless chose his invention as his personal symbol, operating from his optician's premises, 'at the sign of Hadley's Quadrant and Visual Glasses'. In the final analysis, his faith would be rewarded, but not before he had been forced to defend his invention in print.
The BOA Library contains a 4th edition (1758) of his pamphlet An Essay on Visual Glasses (Vulgarly called SPECTACLES) Wherein it is shewn, From the Principles of OPTICS, and the Nature of the EYE, that the Common Structure of those Glasses is contrary to the Rules of Art, to the Nature of Things, & c. and very prejudicial to the EYES. The Nature of VISION in the EYE explained and Glasses of a new construction proposed. In this pamphlet, first published in 1756, Martin claimed to have identified 'Errors of the Common Form' of spectacles whereby most examples produced not only indistinct images but could even damage the wearer's sight.
Martin's solution is illustrated superbly in the BOA Museum's portrait of Admiral Peter Rainier, a painting which has recently be re-attributed to the artist Arthur William Devis. The portrait dates from 1805, half a century after the invention of 'Visual Glasses', but all the essential components are present. The Admiral is wearing spectacles of moulded iron with straight sides and margins of horn or tortoiseshell around the lenses. Martin intended such margined lenses as a 'safeguard to the eye against all other foreign or extraneous light that may come upon it sideways'. He was pleased that the slightly ridiculous appearance of the spectacles did not seem to have put off his customers: Whilst some people, 'objected - that the Visual Glasses have an uncouth look, [and] fit askew upon the nose', he could reply that, 'to a judicious Person, whatever is best, has the best look; and they fit properly in that Position which Nature has directed'. Furthermore, he could also claim that 'Since I have proposed these Visual Glasses, I have the pleasure to find they are greatly approved of, and very well received, even beyond my expectation'.
As with Franklin's work on bifocals, the origins of Martin's invention lie in his own vision problems and he laboured to solve a problem of function, taking little regard of issues of fashion or appearance. With his eyesight fading, he deliberated whether spectacles would be of use to him: 'My own Eyes beginning to require their Assistance, I began more particularly to consider them, and especially how and in what Manner they might be applied to the best advantage for the Eyes'. The horn margins acted almost like a diaphragm, reducing the lens aperture to an inch or less and excluding the 'foreign or extraneous' light from the side. The lenses might, in turn, be tinted, ensuring maximum visual comfort. At his shop in Fleet Street, scarcely a mile from the present-day College of Optometrists, Martin advertised that 'gentlemen and ladies [could] be furnished with visual glasses in temple frames from two shillings and sixpence to five shillings a pair'.
Four examples, tantalisingly stamped 'B.M.', are to be found in the Carl Zeiss Museum, Oberkochen. One such pair, plus some thirty one other unsigned examples are to be found in the BOA Museum; most are no earlier than the 1780s though they include both nose and temple spectacles and one pair of scissor glasses. The design was later much copied and surviving pairs are usually of iron or steel with a C-bridge and margins of cattle horn, though luxury models of silver with tortoiseshell inserts seem to have been made. The historian J.W. Rosenthal has observed that the lenses, whether of pebble or glass, all seem to have been bi-convex and their axes were pointed inwards to meet at the normal reading distance. Martin had favoured a violet tint but it is notable that nineteenth century models tend not to be tinted and the aperture is reduced much less than Martin had advocated. The BOA Museum's painting A Certain Cure, attributed to J.M. Horsley, depicts a mid-Victorian wearer of this later type. An old woman, possibly some sort of quack, but definitely not of the social standing of the Admiral, attends to a mother and her sick baby. In administering medical treatment she is herself wearing spectacles considered by their inventor to be 'the Medicines of the Eyes'.
Follow the link to find out more about nineteenth century spectacles.