Some thoughts on spectacles

Spectacles are now so common that we regard them as an everyday item, we take them for granted and we rarely pay them a second glance.

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Last week I was privileged to be invited by the Museum of Applied and Contemporary Arts, Vienna (known as MAK), to give the opening speech at their summer exhibition, a retrospective on the international eyewear designer Robert La Roche, whose first frames were manufactured in London in the early 1970s: 

Most of us will wear spectacles at some point in our lives. Even those of us who have had laser surgery in the promise that we can throw away our spectacles, will have a shock when, in later life, it turns out we need to wear them anyway. 

Spectacles are now so common that we regard them as an everyday item, we take them for granted and we rarely pay them a second glance.

Spectacles are forever in our line of sight. They sit in front of the face, the most visible part of the human body, and they can occupy up to one third of that surface area. Whether we see them as 'jewellery for the face', 'clothing for the eyes' or, less positively, as a cosmetic shield or a disability aid, we can hide behind them but we cannot hide from them.

When we put our own spectacles on, of course we cannot see them. If the lenses work as they should and the rims are not too shallow or narrow, we forget about them and are only reminded of them if someone pays us a compliment...but throughout most of history there was nothing glamorous about spectacles, so such compliments were rare indeed. Nobody thought to say anything about them.

Spectacles are now so common that we regard them as an everyday item, we take them for granted and we rarely pay them a second glance. To some extent this is a mark of their success. We don't look at other people's spectacles, but through them, through the lenses to the eyes of the person behind them. That is how we connect with people. It's been made easier with the development of high-index lenses and anti-reflection lens coatings. It is truly communication without barriers!

We used to speak of spectacle 'frames' as though what they surrounded was what truly mattered. But who goes into an art gallery to admire the picture frames rather than the paintings they surround? This exhibition shows that the more recent concept of 'eyewear' has truly come of age. By staging it, the MAK museum has ensured the status of the spectacle frame as an object of specialist design...worth a look in itself.

The exhibition is now closed

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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