Shadowbox: Camera Obscura

A small element within the storyline of SHADOWBOX is a fascinating piece of equipment: the camera obscura.

An ingenious device for capturing images using a simple set of mirrors and the refractive qualities of light, the camera obscura

is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography and the cameraWikipedia

Most of the time it was used to paint landscapes. Around the time that Giovanni Belzoni was making his fabulous facsimile of the tomb of Seti I, landscape artists were using a camera obscura to map out Greece, then under Ottoman rule.

Artists such as Vermeer are suspected of using one, and we know that Leonardo Da Vinci was familiar with the tool.

An… important advantage of the camera obscura is that it narrows the hopelessly wide range of brightness found in nature to a more limited number of tonal values reproducible by the painter’s pigments –

In other words, using a camera obscura makes painting easier because it limits the number of colours the eye can make out. Useful if, like my character, you have next to no artistic training.

But there’s more to the camera obscura than just painting. It can be used for entertainment too, and a rather saucy depiction of this is used in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers (1968) in a scene that presages how Richard Chamberlain’s Tchaikovsky and his new wife (played by Glenda Jackson) really aren’t suited for one another.

Modern day photographers use the camera obscura to take photographs, while others design and install public artworks of the type. Here’s one at the top of Cairngorm, in Scotland (note: weather and clear view not normal):

Camera Obscura in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland

Still in use today, the artists who sketched the landscapes of Greece and Italy on the Grand Tour used a camera obscura to help them capture the details. One of these artists, Simone Pomardi, hires my character Louis Beauregard as a trainee draughtsman in the course of my novel, SHADOWBOX.

Is Louis any good, though?

Next in the SHADOWBOX series: The Magic Lantern Picture Show.

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Shadowbox: In Byron’s Shadow

“There is something pagan in me that I cannot shake off. In short, I deny nothing, but doubt everything.”John William Waterhouse - a mermaid

SHADOWBOX begins in 1832. The young Louis Beauregard flees London to escape a crime he cannot forget and seeks to drown his memory in debauchery and revels.

He wouldn’t be the first man to do so.

Lord George Gordon Byron, accompanied by his friend Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Polidori, Mary Shelley and a few hangers-on, set the tone for many adventurers of the upper class when they escaped public outrage and landed on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Others followed.

A peculiar fashion arose in the salons of London. Borne out of the tragic loss of the Colonies in North America to independence, the wealthy of London sought adventure elsewhere.

France and Italy, the twin states ruled by Bourbon kings, were at peace with the rest of Europe, for a little while at least. Internal strife might cause problems, but tourists were hardly impacted. And following on from the lack of ability to travel to north America, the wealthy of Britain – England – spread their adventuring to Europe on the Grand Tour.

The nation’s public schools (actually fee-paying and not at all like public education, especially public education of the time) emphasised Greek and Latin scholarship.

There was also a lack of reading material. Back in the early 19th century there was no publishing business to speak of.
Many homes had no access to a book. Many more had access only to a single Bible, and while the religious reformers taught in English, a grounding in Latin was seen as the basis for understanding the great poetry and literature of the time.

Who’s to say that Greek epic poetry isn’t worth keeping? And so the schools taught Greek, the stories of Homer and Troy, of Penelope and Odysseus and Helen. Still stirring today.

But the wealthy of the 19th century took advantage of the political peace across Bourbon regions and headed off to see Rome for themselves. The more adventurous disregarded the rebellion and the bandits in Greece and set off to find Athens, Sparta, Corinth, all happily trundling along with much the same sort of lifestyle they imagined had been borne by the ancients.

Except they plundered the places they visited.

Lord Elgin stole the marble statues from the plinth of the Parthenon, ostensibly to save them from the Turkish troops taking potshots or from the gunpowder stored inside blowing them up.

When he returned to London with them, Robert Smirke was commissioned to build the first hall of the British Museum to house them, along with all the Egyptian antiquities we’d hoarded since Giovanni Belzoni began bewitching women with stories of dead princes and painted tombs.

Napoleon Bonaparte stole treasures from Egypt while his army occupied the country.

Britons followed, continuing a fascination which had begun centuries earlier and continues to this day.

Germany, too, although not yet a nation state, sent its archaeologists to acquire antiquities.Ottoman Empire

Uprisings against the Ottoman Empire tinged these adventures with a smidgeon of danger, always a thrill to recount back in the comfortable drawing-rooms and parlours of one’s home nation.

Into this foment of passion, exploration, revolution and liberty, I pitched the young Louis Beauregard with a price on his head and a past he cannot escape.

In the shadow of Byron he set off for Greece and the wild hills of Olympus. But he stopped off in Paris on the way, and there the story really catches up with him.
Next in the SHADOWBOX series: Rogues Gallery.
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Shadowbox: Mad, bad and dangerous to know

They said of Lord George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron FRS, that he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”.

“Mad, bad and dangerous to know” – Lady Caroline Lamb on Byron (links to BBC article online)

He’s regarded as one of the greatest European poets and remains widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and beyond. He had a short life packed with the sort of adventure that only someone who doesn’t have to work for a living can indulge in.

Byron’s fame rests not only on his writings but also on his life, which featured upper-class living, numerous love affairs, debts, and separation. He served as a regional leader of Italy’s revolutionary organisation, the Carbonari, in its struggle against Austria. He later travelled to fight against the Ottoman Empire in the Greek War of Independence , for which Greeks revere him as a national hero.

Plenty of men – and women – had lives which took them across continents, in the early part of the 19th century. Without them, we wouldn’t have the world as we know it now: David Thompson (film link), Mungo Park (Google map link), Isabelle Eberhardt, Matthew Henson.

What made Byron famous was the circles within which he moved, and their ability to influence what was written in the popular press of the time. For most ordinary folk the picture painted of Byron – then, as now – was a cross between Captain Jack Sparrow and Bear Grylls, with a wild hint of Errol Flynn. Byron’s antics, real or imagined, sold newspapers. Being from the nobility helped, in other words.

Byron also lived such a magical life that his image pops up in cameo across much later popular fiction.

He makes an appearance in “The Difference Engine” by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, in Tennessee William’s play “Camino Real”, and the events featuring the Shelleys and Byron at the house beside Lake Geneva in 1816 have been fictionalised in film at least three times. He appears as a character in Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell”(2004) and also in Tim Powers “The Stress of Her Regard” (1989), where he and his entourage on the Villa Deodati perform a pivotal role within in the story.

Whatever the demon that rode Byron to his infamy, he relied very much on his wealth. But even wealth in a period where it was concentrated in the hands of a global elite, complete with slaves and factories and child labour, couldn’t help save a man’s life when illness struck.

As it was with Byron. He died, at the age of 36, from a fever contracted while in Messolonghi in Greece.

So how does this fit into this series on the influences of my novel, SHADOWBOX?

I can’t stress how strongly the young poet’s influence had on the people of the early 19th century. A life lived to the full, with permissive morality and a flagrant disregard for public opinion, appeals both to the young Louis Beauregard in SHADOWBOX as much as it attracted Austin Powers and the rest of the Swinging Sixties crowd.

And in his desire to mimic the life Byron lived – to understand the driven nature of a rich man tortured by events over which he has no control, and whose memories will not let him escape – the young Louis Beauregard channels his energies into a life of “debauchery and revels… in a city famous for glittering seductions and violent Revolution.”

How he behaves there – and whether he survives – is revealed in the novel.

Next post in the SHADOWBOX series: In Byron’s Shadow.

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Published in: on June 9, 2014 at 2:00 am  Comments (1)  
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