Quizzing glasses (quizzers)

A single lens to peer through.

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The quizzing glass was popular with both men and women from the eighteenth century onwards. Unsurprisingly for such a simple device there were earlier precursors, for instance in the sixteenth century Holbein painted Edward Seymour holding something that looks remarkably similar.

Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruikshank all caricatured the use of quizzing glasses and famous quizzer users included Charles James Fox.

Quizzing glass

Because they are monocular you will sometimes see quizzing glasses described as 'monocles'. Some were indeed (even if they have a handle) intended for placing within the eye socket but this term is potentially misleading and 'quizzing glass' or simply 'quizzer' is more likely to be accurate. The word 'manocle' meaning a hand-held lens has also been used but is not a popular term. The gold handle of the example shown on the right revolves and features a central compartment for containing a vinaigrette. Quizzers have also been made combined with watch keys or compartments to keep a lock of hair.

Quizzing glass lenses could be round, oval or oblong. The rims are often faceted, or pinchbeck, or mounted with diamonds, turquoise or imitation stones. The museum has one example made from jet. Occasionally a more elaborate example will have both an inner and outer rim. The handles could be plain or decorative like this or more imaginatively constructed, for example as a series of intertwining loops. Sometimes on close inspection  the loops can turn out to be more than they first appeared - a dolphin swallowing its own head perhaps, a Roman harp, or back-to-back Chinese dragons. The handles were generally quite short, some offering barely enough material to get a firm grip although a secure hold could be assisted by the decoration which in some cases, therefore, has to be regarded as semi-functional in its purpose.

Victorian quizzing glasses could be hung from a chain worn around the neck. Many of these were made of cut steel. Sometimes the links of the chain are as decorative, if not more so, than the quizzing glass itself. the use of these devices often had negative associations:

Quizzing: 'The act of mocking by a narrow examination through a quizzing-glass or by pretended seriousness of discourse'.

(Definition from the Royal Dictionary Cyclopedia of Universal Reference by Thomas Wright, 1865).

Like spectacles, quizzing glasses were also provided with their own specially shaped cases.

An early variation on the quizzing glass is the single hand lens, which often folds into a case-cum-handle of tortoiseshell or Mother of Pearl. Some of these are difficult to distinguish from magnifiers. The difference is in the position the device needed to be held, closer to the face in the case of quizzing glasses rather than close to the object being viewed.  

The popularity of quizzing glasses waned after 1850 but opticians continued to supply quizzing glasses, now often in colourful plastic frames and mainly marketed for women, until the later 20th century.

The dandy and the quizzing glass

statuette of a French dandy using a quizzing glass

When a Russian academic working in conjunction with History of design departments in Sweden and Australia needed three-dimensional source material on the history of eighteenth and nineteenth century dandies, she knew where to come! Amongst other things we showed her this figurine. It's a fine example of a dandy in all his exaggerated bodily pose, not entirely comfortable we suspect ...and almost contorted. To see the complete way his body is twisted you'll have to visit the museum to see the object itself. He moves his whole body around in a self-conscious manner to follow the direction of his hand-held quizzing glass. This was no way to obtain good clear vision but in a society where appearance and mode of stance and behaviour meant more, this was the way to deport yourself.

The statuette was produced at an unknown date in the 19th century (probably between 1870 and 1885) and is marked on the socle as being supplied by the noted workshop Maison Alphonse Giroux. Founded by Francois Simon Alphonse Giroux in 1799 this business began as cabinetmakers to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris. One of Francois' two sons was Alphonse Gustave Giroux who took over the business in 1838 and produced all manner of ornate objects d’art for various members of European royalty. Giroux received a silver medal at the 1839 Exposition des l’Industrie Francaise and produced pieces for the World Exposition of 1855. We might also note that Maison Giroux is credited with having produced the first commercial camera and many daguerrotype portraits under the direction of Monsieur Daguerre (a family relation of Giroux) himself. In 1867 the company was taken over by Duvinage and Harinkouck before ceasing trading in 1885.

The statuette, which stands about 22cm high, is a work of the artist Emile Coriolan Hippolyte Guillemin (1841-1907). He specialised in bronzes of exotic or foppish figures, musicians or literary giants.