A certain cure

A painting in the College collection is significant for showing antique spectacles still in use.

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Painting entitled A Certain Cure

A Certain Cure
John Callcott Horsley

An old woman in spectacles attends to a young mother and her sick baby. The mother didn't know what to do. The one thing she did know she should do was send for the wise woman of the village, who has arrived with her medicines and mixing bowls. Her spectacles are perhaps a sign of the wisdom of old age, of the accumulated knowledge of generations. These remedies were probably handed down in the family...as may have been her spectacles! The glasses are hard to interpret. They could be very early cataract spectacles but the date and context suggests not. More probably she is wearing 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. These spectacles are a century out of date!

You can click on the image of this painting to enlarge it.

Detail from the painting A certain cure showing the spectacles

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 hundred years. This museum 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.

Essay on Visual Glasses

Martin's Essay on Visual Glasses

The College 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.

The following slideshow presents more images of Martin's Margins:


Martin wrote that, 'Action of Light upon the Eye tends gradually to weaken it, the common Size of Spectacle-Glasses pours in upon the Eye-Ball three Times as much as is necessary for this Purpose; and therefore is very prejudicial to the Eye in this Respect, as in Time it makes them weak and watry'. As an accomplished instrument maker he was also able to point out that other optical instruments, like microscopes and telescopes, made effective use of a diaphragm to restrict incoming light.

Martin's solution is illustrated superbly in the 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'.

Plate from Martin's pamphlet 1758

Plate from Martin's pamphlet of 1758
(Click on the image to enlarge)

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'.

Benjamin Martin,

Benjamin Martin, Optician

This is a portrait print of him, printed in 1785, some 45 years after the publication of his greatest work: A New and Compendious System of Optics (1740) and notable especially for the job-title he attaches to himself.

Follow the link to find out more about eighteenth century spectacles in our Virtual spectacles gallery.

Four examples of spectacles, tantalisingly stamped 'B.M.', are to be found in the Carl Zeiss Museum, Oberkochen. Two such pairs, plus some thirty or so 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 at least one pair of scissor spectacles. 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 late 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.

Follow the link to find out more about nineteenth century spectacles and what the old woman would have been wearing if fashion had played any part in the matter for her.