A spyglass is simply a small telescope. Specialist collectors reserve the word to describe items such as you see here. They would not use it to describe a pirate's nautical telescope (pub names in 'Treasure Island' not withstanding).

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Spyglass museum display 1930s
BOA Museum display 1930s

There are 171 spyglasses in the College's museum collection, some of them most exquisite objects fashioned from luxury materials such as gold, silver, ivory and real tortoisehell. As many were signed we can use them to learn about the work of several famous opticians and instrument makers.

The 1930s museum display of spyglasses at Brook Street included large spyglasses (some with up to six draw tubes) alongside miniature 'trinket' varieties, interspersed with jealousy glasses and other hand-held viewers.

Spyglasses generally work on the Galilean principle. They have an objective lens (usually wider) and an eyepiece lens. The lenses may be fixed or they may be accessible by unscrewing the lens mount. Sometimes there is an inscription on the border of the lens that can only be found by doing this. Care should be taken when dismantling a spyglass as the lens may drop out or the delicate screw-thread become damaged.

Spyglasses can be concealed as part of other objects such as fans or scent bottles. They have occasionally been mounted upon lorgnette handles or on the end of walking sticks (though many examples of the latter type are modern fakes).

Antique coloured print of a woman using a spyglass

Spyglasses were especially popular for about a century from the mid 18th century until the mid 19th century and the museum has examples from throughout that period. Spyglasses might be used in the street as the image to the right shows. It is a detail taken from a print of 1796 called High Change in Bond Street ou La Politesse du Grande Monde by James Gillray. Spyglasses were obviously considered suitable devices for women to use, but their owners were not normally so vulgar!

Shapes of spyglass barrels (after 1760)

  •  Bell-shape
  •  Cone-shape
  •  Pear-shape
  •  Barrel-shape

Antique prints make it clear that the more well-to-do often used spyglasses instead of spectacles. There are many images of the visually-challenged King George III greeting his courtiers from the other end of a spyglass!

Racegoer figurine with spyglass

Likewise, porcelain figurines often depict fashionable racegoers with a spyglass raised to their eye.  Many of these are Victorian but depict a figure in the costume of at least a century earlier.

The varying shapes of spyglass barrel reflect the larger objective lenses used once the problem of chromatic aberration has been solved. These shapes are ill-defined and some spyglasses are hard to classify. To all intents and purposes 'spyglasses', 'monoculars' and 'prospect glasses' are the same thing.

Museum postcard of spyglasses

Museum postcard of spyglasses
(You can buy one when you visit)

The group image is taken from one of the set of 16 museum postcards shows three particularly fine spyglasses. On the left is an example of a single-draw spyglass, with a black shagreen and wood barrel timmed with silver. The draw tube is covered with green pressed card (simulating leather) and features gilt tooled decoration of a bird and scroll design. There are further silver bands on the straight-sided barrel. The eyepiece screws on. Made in Milan by Francois de Baillou, the object dates from 1761. Milan was obviously a centre for quality spyglass production at the start of their century of popularity. We also possess a carved silver example by Pietro Beltrami from 1754. Next to the de baillou spyglass is its accompanying satinwood case. This is quite fragile and proof that it contained a luxury product. More robust leather cases were made for carrying your spyglass around with you.

The middle spyglass is a five-draw specimen with a painted enamel barrel and gilt tubes. The barrel decoration features portraits of five French cultural figures: Moliere, Lanard, Voltaire, Regnard, La Chaussée, Corneille. They are the best guide we have to a possible date but like many spyglasses this item is unsigned and therefore we can only guess at its origin.

Finally there is a very rare 'Wedgwood' spyglass by Watkins & Hill. Dating from the early 19th century, the nice thing about this spyglass is that it was made and sold only yards away from the current home of the museum at Charing Cross. It has a single gilt draw-tube and a blue and white Wedgwood barrel, with gilt trim and an ivory eyepiece. The decoration depicts the marriage of Cupid and Psyche. For years only one other example of a Wedgwood spyglass was known to exist - reportedly in a Hamburg Museum. More recent research has revealed examples in Britain at the Wedgwood Museum itself and at the Bowes Museum, in Europe at  the Louvre (part of the Madame Heymann bequest), in the USA at the University of Arizona, the Brooklyn Museum in New York and the Metropolitan Museum (this latter a jasperware example with numerous putti). An example similar to that at the Metropolitan, but heavily restored, sold on eBAY in January 2014, tentatively dated c.1790, with a decorative design by Flaxman and a silver-plated ocular tube and eyecup signed by Lerebours Quai de l'horloge, Paris (Noel Jean Lerebours 1761-1840).