The spectacles of the 'Two Cultures'

The glasses that viewed the 'corridors of power'.

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Folding spectacles once belonging to C. P. Snow

A very sharp mind was granted enhanced vision through these three pairs of spectacles. Sir Charles Percy Snow (C. P. Snow 1905-1980), scientist, civil servant, novelist and media pundit, subsequently Baron Snow of Leicester is perhaps most famous for having coined the phrases 'The Corridors of Power' and 'The Two Cultures' (namely of Arts and Science).

The latter of these phrases is perhaps the most apt to the professional body for optometry, charged amongst other things, with the role of promoting optometry through lobbying activities, to ensure that key stakeholders are fully aware of the value of the profession, the need for proper funding and high standards of training and professional practice. Snow referred to 'The Two Cultures' in an article in The New Statesman magazine (October 1956) and he restated his position in a prestige Cambridge University lecture, 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution' in 1959. It was both a plea to train more scientists for what was expected to be a Britain dependent upon increasingly technologically-driven industries and a rallying cry for those scientists to get more political, to make their voices heard amongst key decision makers many of whom might of course have no scientific background on which to draw.

Folding spectacles once belonging to C. P. Snow

It wasn't an entirely one-way argument, however, as its reverse side was that those involved in 'scientific culture' needed to better themselves by developing an appreciation for the literary classics, not merely in order to break down the cultural barriers between them and their political masters (it's a refreshing thought to think that Whitehall mandarins might still be so imbued with Dickens and Shakespeare) but to draw inspiration from the same. In particular Snow decried the tradition that British school children were forced to specialise in arts or sciences at too early an age, a problem with the educational system that some still perceive today.

Snow, a technocrat, was in tune with the Labour Party of the time, a regular contributor to debates on science policy in the late 1950s and early 1960s and might be seen as paving the way for Harold Wilson's 'White Heat of Technology' speech of 1963. Without such thinking we might not have seen the development of the Colleges of Advanced Technology, some of which like Aston and Welsh CAT in Cardiff were responsible for offering new degree courses in optometry from the mid 1960s. Indeed Snow himself was 'Visitor' to the Hatfield Polytechnic which, in its current guise as the University of Hertfordshire, is a recent addition to the pool of optometry course providers. Snow was also a close confidante of Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour Chancellor who abolished free NHS glasses for all, but we do not know what Snow thought of that decision.

A Bishop Harman Loupe once belonging to C. P. Snow

Intellectual rivalry within the University of Cambridge meant that Snow's voice did not go unchallenged. The literary critic Frank Leavis (1895-1978) declared orally in his lecture 'Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow' (1962) and subsequently in print that Snow was 'as intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be' and he didn't think much of Snow's novels either. It was one of the most controversial personal attacks and act of rival back-biting of the decade and elicited much condemnation. To the best of our knowledge Leavis' spectacles, if he ever wore any, have not been preserved for posterity!

The folding spectacles are typical of the 1930s but would have been considered good quality products for their time. The pair with the red leather case are made of real shell. The pair with the black vinyl case are of cellulose acetate in imitation of tortoiseshell but feature the best-quality metal-to-metal joints. The third pair is a little more specialist, known as a Bishop Harman Binocular Loupe. The Bishop-Harman Binocular Loupe (available from at least 1933-1980s) was designed to be worn low on the nose, hence the very long sides. Suppliers included Down Bros, Clement Clarke, Hamblin, Newbold & Bulford, R. Archer and, more latterly, they were available from the Association of British Dispensing Opticians (ABDO). They come in a case marked with the name of the jeweller 'Asprey' but it is doubtful that this denotes the maker. It may denote another supplier, one selling such items to important government officials.

Snow's wife gave the spectacles to the donor's mother, Snow's Secretary, on his death in 1980 along with a number of items intended as a donation to Oxfam, however she felt that they were too important to dispose of in this manner. The dust jackets of some of Snow's famous publications show him apparently wearing these spectacles. Having played with the glasses as a child the donor chose to pass them on to the BOA Museum in 2001.

Further study:

Furedi, F., From Two Cultures to No Culture (Trowbridge: Civitas/Cromwell Press, 2009) [online here]

Ortolano, G., 2009, The Two Cultures Controversy: Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (Cambridge: CUP, 2009)

Snow, C. P., The Two Cultures (Cambridge: CUP, 1993 - new edition)

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