Cheap (!) Chinese spectacles

One of the more unusual tasks the College’s museum has been called on to perform recently has been advising on a children’s television programme.

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Author: Neil Handley, Museum Curator
Date: 17 February 2015

One of the more unusual tasks the College’s museum has been called on to perform recently has been advising on the script for a children’s television programme. ‘Teacup Travels’ on the C-Beebies channel is a weekly adventure yarn in which a young girl, Charlotte, imagines herself as an explorer in the past. The story in each episode is conjured up by the collection of illustrated teacups in her Great Aunt Lizzie’s house.

The first episode, broadcast last week, involved a cup bearing the image of a pair of Chinese spectacles. As with all 25 episodes, the image on the cup was inspired by a real object in a UK museum. Guess where they found a pair of Chinese spectacles? After discussions on the best one to choose, the production company Plum Films, made an exact replica of our object as that was safer for use as a film prop.

I’m sure all College members will drink (tea) to that!

This was when the discussion got more complicated though, to its credit, the production company was very receptive to my suggestions. I pointed out that the setting of ‘ancient China’ was inappropriate as no spectacles existed then. It was changed to ‘Imperial China’. The central character is Mr Chen who has failing eyesight. We learn that he has been ‘staying away’ and ‘not talking to anyone’, typical symptoms of the social isolation that can so exacerbate the problems of visually impaired people. Mr Chen has been suffering headaches (that was my suggestion) and it hurts his eyes to look at something close such that he has had to give up his passion for painting Chinese landscapes. At this point comes the pivotal plot line as his daughter proclaims ‘We could never afford a pair of spectacles!’. Indeed Great Aunt Lizzie had foreshadowed this line by telling Charlotte the teacup bears the image of the ‘expensive spectacles’. This was a battle I lost, since all the evidence increasingly points to the fact that historical spectacles were not expensive. The idea that they were is an urban myth in much the same way that modern spectacles are often wrongly perceived to be overpriced – something on which the College has offered advice in the past.

Having defied the physical rules of friction to paraglide across a ravine, Charlotte reaches the nearest town where there is to be found a ‘Spectacle Makers Shop’. For historical reasons I advised on the use of this phrase rather than ‘optician’ or 'optometrist'! but the set-dressers had still been unable to resist installing the anachronism of a Chinese character Snellen chart! At this point the original script had the very youthful spectacle maker asking Charlotte for Mr Chen’s ‘prescription’. After I’d picked myself off the floor we discussed the more rudimentary trial and error methods that would in fact have been used for lens selection in those days. Getting this scene right was even more complicated given that the intended wearer was in absentia.

Proving that the barter economy was still alive and well, Charlotte swaps two of Mr Chen’s paintings for the perfect pair of spectacles and returns triumphantly with them. In a scene reminiscent of many historic pictures in which the symbolism of spectacles is used to suggest a wider insight than normal human vision, Mr Chen puts them on and comes to a moment of self-realisation. ‘I can see what a grumpy old man I’ve been’ he says. The moral of the tale turns out to be that obtaining the spectacles has ‘made everybody’s lives easier’. I’m sure all College members will drink (tea) to that!

Neil Handley MA AMA FRSA
Museum Curator, The College of Optometrists

Neil Handley is recognised as one the UK’s principal historians of spectacles, vision aids and opticians. He has been curator of the British Optical Association Museum at The College of Optometrists in London since 1998 and is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers.

The Curator is available for lectures and informal talks off-site as well as guided tours of the museum gallery and College Meeting Rooms. Considered to be an authority on ophthalmic history he can also advise on items on optical and optometric heritage including their identification and dating. He has been awarded the medal of the Ocular Heritage Society of America on several occasions.

Neil was awarded the Associateship of the Museums Association in 2002 and was one of the first 17 museum professionals in the country to gain the AMA+ qualification in May 2007. He now serves as a Museums Association Mentor for younger curators.

Neil was elected Chairman of the prestigious London Museums of Health and Medicine (2011-14), widely considered within the profession to be one of the most dynamic and go-ahead museum specialist networks. During this time he oversaw that organisation's first strategic review for fifteen years. He is also a past Vice Chairman of the Scientific Instrument Society and became a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (FRSA) in 2012.

Front cover of the book Cult Eyewear 2011

Neil  has published articles on spectacle frame design, the history of opticians, artificial eyes and facial prosthetics. He has contributed to a number of books on the history of the subject, including a chapter on artificial eyes for the book Devices and Designs (2006) and the major German publication Treasury of Optics (2012). He spent much of 2009 and 2010 writing a book on Cult Eyewear, the first serious analytical study of the historical development of branded fashion spectacle frames, published by Merrell on 27 September 2011. He also co-authored, with David Cartwright, the second volume of the College History, The College of Optometrists: A History 1998-2015, published in October 2015. He has also written articles for journals as diverse as Optometry in Practice, Contact Lens and Anterior Eye, Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, From the Master and Wardens (newsletter of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers), Ophthalmic Antiques, Gewina (Dutch Journal for the History of Science), Antiquarian Horology and Pharmaceutical Historian.

Contact the Curator by email

Or follow him on Twitter @neilhandleyuk

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