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Introduction: Gainsborough's Show Box: Illusion and Special Effects in Eighteenth-Century

Author(s): Ann Bermingham
Source: Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2 (June 2007), pp. 203-208
Published by: University of California Press
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Huntington Library Quarterly.
Gainsborough’s Show Box: Illusion and
Special Effects in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Ann Bermingham

 sometime in the early 1780s the artist Thomas Gainsborough began

painting landscapes on glass slides (plate 1) that he mounted in a candle-lit box fitted
with a lens especially built for viewing them (figure 1). In the darkened interior of the
box the landscapes glowed luminously. Visitors to the Victoria and Albert Museum
today can experience something of the magic of Gainsborough’s show box, which is on
view there, and of the private, self-enclosed world of imagination and fantasy that the
box induces. It is the effect of the show box, and the door that it opens on to the realm
of visual magic and illusion, that the papers in this special issue of the Huntington
Library Quarterly expand on. First presented at a symposium at the Huntington in
conjunction with an exhibition on Gainsborough cosponsored with the Yale Center
for British Art, the essays explore the taste for sensational illusion and special visual
effects that emerged in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century.1
As an occasion for reverie Gainsborough’s show box is cousin to the camera ob-
scura, the dark room into which images from outside are projected through a pinhole
onto the opposite wall. For John Locke the camera obscura was a metaphor for the
human mind and its powers to see and reflect on external visual stimuli entering the
mind through the eyes. Images coming into the mind, like those projected into the
camera obscura, are sorted and shaped by the mind into knowledge. However, un-
like a camera obscura, where the images projected are of real things, the show box
presents imagined scenes painted by Gainsborough, and its images tend in the direc-
tion of dream, unreality, and the unconscious. In the end, the show box is not quite like
the camera obscura—that is to say, a metaphor for the universal human mind—so

1. Sensation and Sensibility: Viewing Gainsborough’s Cottage Door, was a collaboration between
the Yale Center for British Art and the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
It was curated by Ann Bermingham, and was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities,
the Samuel Kress Foundation, and the Essick Foundation.

huntington library quarterly | vol. 70, no. 2  203

Pp. 203–208. ©2007 by Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery. issn 0018-7895 | e-issn 1544-399x. All rights reserved.
For permission to photocopy or reproduce article content, consult the University of California Press Rights and Permissions
website, DOI: 10.1525/hlq.2007.70.2.203.
 204 ann bermingham

much as it is a metaphor for Gainsborough’s mind. As a visual technology it anticipates

cinema for it invites the viewer to suspend disbelief and participate in a shared illusion.
Yet once again we must make a distinction between Gainsborough’s show box
and other visual media. The loose brushwork of the glass transparencies suggests that
Gainsborough was not interested in the hard-edged illusionism we associate with
photography and, by extension, the cinema. Instead, his show box landscapes appear
as products of a painterly imagination. As William Vaughan has noted, they seem to
have been intended to encourage “poetic thoughts about the transformative effects of
color and light.”2 Gainsborough’s transparencies, therefore, are explorations of the
medium of paint and its evocative effects. Accordingly, the viewer enters into the
transparencies’ illusions by imaginatively supplying what is absent in the paint han-
dling. Just as Locke acknowledged that the mental patterns of custom and habit as de-
rived from experience enable us to order the chaos of visual images entering the brain
by filling in missing bits of visual information and linking them into an imagistic
whole, Sir Joshua Reynolds explained that the viewer’s imagination supplied what was
missing in Gainsborough’s loose brushwork, and did so in a way that was “more satis-
factory to himself.”3 In keeping with Gainsborough’s and the period’s preoccupation
with sympathy and sensibility, one’s experience of the show box, whatever it may fi-
nally be, is the product of a fusion of the artist’s sensibility with one’s own.4 Therefore,
as much as the images and effects are the products of Gainsborough’s imagination,
they are also to some degree made by the viewer as well.
The show box is crucial to our investigation of special effects at the end of the
eighteenth century, for while it powerfully evokes technologies of visual pleasure
that were to explode in the last decade of the century in the form of panoramas,
phantasmagoria, and other spectacles, it also reminds us that viewing is never a pas-
sive experience, that even when overwhelmed by a powerfully realized illusion—
which Gainsborough’s show box transparencies are purposely not—we nevertheless
bring to that experience our own ways of seeing and understanding. We may be un-
aware of this individual “processing” of visual experience but it happens nonetheless.
For Freud, such processing occurred at a level of the pre-verbal, eidetic, and hallucina-
tory mind; today it is understood in terms of biochemistry and the electrical impulses
and neural pathways of the brain.
Gainsborough’s show box enthrones imagination, both the artist’s and the
viewer’s, and does so in such a way as to make us aware of our active participation in its
productions. Implicitly, it challenges the Lockeian understanding of universal mind,
generating instead a model of consciousness that is individual and idiosyncratic and in
which imagination, not reason, plays a determining role. Similarly, its aesthetic is un-
hinged from any obligation to speak in the universal language of generalized form

2. William Vaughan, Gainsborough (London, 2002), 188.

3. Joshua Reynolds, Discourses, ed. Robert Wark (New Haven, Conn., 1981), 259. For Locke on
custom in relation to Gainsborough brushwork, see Amal Ashford and Paul Williamson, Gains-
borough’s Vision (Liverpool, 1999), 16–17.
4. On the importance of this kind of process in sensibility, see Northrop Frye, “Towards Defining
an Age of Sensibility,” ELH 23 (1956): 144–52.
introduction  205

figure 1. Gainsborough’s show box (ca. 1871–82), wood and glass, 69.9 x 61 x 40.6 cm. Victoria and
Albert Museum, London.

understood by Reynolds in his Discourses as the “great style.” The box creates instead
an aesthetic experience that is private and individual, not general and universal.
In doing so it seems of a piece with the gradual privatization of the aesthetic
tracked by John Barrell in his magisterial study of the decline of civic humanism in
British art theory.5 In this context the box anticipates the coupling of individualism
and consumerism that Barrell and others have found to be the driving force in the
bourgeois art world of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In this
world, works of art no longer speak to a shared communal vision of civic duty and vir-
tuous disinterestedness, but to individual pleasures, appetites, fantasies, and desires.
The obvious casualty of this change was history painting, the traditional rationale for
which had been to provide the public with virtuous civic examples. In the mundane
bourgeois world of market capital, heroism, as Martin Myrone explains in his essay on
Fuseli, became a conspicuous fantasy indulged in, if at all, as a pure spectacle.6
This privatization of the aesthetic also resulted in the production of “history
paintings” that instead of deriving from stories in the Bible, history, or literature had no
textual referent but that were instead pure inventions of the artist. As Myrone explains,
Fuseli was one of the most notorious in this regard, submitting a number of works to
the Royal Academy in the early 1780s that were based on wholly fabricated textual
sources. Just as Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto pretends to be an old manuscript
“printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529,”7 Fuseli’s imaginary subjects
claim to derive from literary sources that are in fact nonexistent. Not only are they self-
reflexive products of the artist’s imagination, but they are pure simulations, or signs
without referents—in the words of Jerrold Hogle, they are “ghosts of counterfeits.” 8

5. John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt: “The Body of the Public”
(New Haven, Conn., and London, 1986).
6. See too Myrone’s groundbreaking Bodybuilding: Reforming Masculinities in British Art
1750–1810 (New Haven, Conn., and London, 2006).
7. Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto, ed. Michael Gamer (London, 2001), 5.
8. Jerrold E. Hogle, “The Ghost of the Counterfeit—and the Closet—in The Monk,” Romanticism
On the Net 8 (November 1997) <>.
 206 ann bermingham

Observers of the period’s turn to technology-driven popular visual spectacle

have linked it to a taste for the gothic and the emergence of consumer capitalism, in
which all value derives from the market.9 Capitalism’s demotion of use value in favor
of exchange value, the argument goes, was a profound epistemic shift whereby value
was no longer attached to objects by virtue of their necessity but instead by virtue of
their market worth. Value, and by extension meaning, became destabilized, for value
now depended on fluctuating market supply and consumer demand. The commodity
fetish is the prime example of an object without either intrinsic or use value. As a
sign it is a signifier without stable signified. The commodity is instead an object of
fantasy, a valueless thing and an empty sign on which consumer desire—that is to
say, the market—projects whatever value and meaning it desires. Perhaps more signif-
icantly, market value means that all things are potentially commodities. The fantastic
element of market capitalism’s materialism was understood by Coleridge, who de-
scribed it as removing “all reality and immediateness of perception,” and placing us in-
stead “in a dream world of phantoms and specters, the inexplicable swarm and
equivocal generation of motions in our own brain.”10 The Gothic’s preoccupation with
ghosts and imaginary visions and the popular media’s preoccupation with visual simu-
lations all point back, some argue, to this dematerialization of value and meaning.
In his essay John Brewer argues that growth in public spectacles like the pano-
rama and the culture of sensibility associated with the cottage door paintings of Gains-
borough respond to and attempt to ameliorate the intensity of sensation that critics
saw as symptomatic of modern life. Walter Benjamin saw a similar restructuring of ex-
perience in his analysis of early cinema, which he argues both distanced the viewer
from the shocks encountered in modern life through cinematic simulations and at the
same time introduced those same shocks into its mode of mechanical reproduction.11
As Frances Terpak shows, the sheer number of visual apparatuses created at the end of
the century to simulate everything from landscapes to fireworks is staggering. Gains-
borough’s box is only one of a number of “devices of wonder” that thrilled audiences
with their ability to mimic natural objects or to create visual effects, like the phan-
tasmagoria, that made supernatural apparitions appear real.12 One of the most ex-
traordinary of the showmen of this era was the Strasbourgian artist Philippe de
Loutherbourg, whose highly illusionistic stagecraft transformed the eighteenth-
century theater. In 1781 Loutherbourg produced a miniature mechanical theater, the
Eidophusikon, which so enthralled Gainsborough that he attended it night after night.
As Christopher Baugh explains here, Loutherbourg’s theatrical entertainments inte-

9. On this strain of analysis see Andrea Henderson, “An Embarrassing Subject: Use Value and Ex-
change Value in Early Gothic Characterization,” in Mary Favret and Nicola J. Watson, eds., At the Lim-
its of Romanticism (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1994), 225–45.
10. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Donald A.
Stauffer, 2 vols. (New York, 1951), 147.
11. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,”in Illuminations,
ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973), 178–79.
12. For a superb catalogue of these apparatuses and descriptions of their use and significance, see
Barbara Stafford and Frances Terpak, Devices of Wonder: From the World in a Box to Images on a Screen
(Los Angeles, 2001).
introduction  207

grated the actor into the scenic illusion, thus heightening the reality effect of the per-
formance and transforming the relationship between the actor and the audience. The
new realism of the stage meant that the audience became less actively involved with
the performance for fear of breaking the illusion. The basic tendency of eighteenth-
century visual spectacles, not just theater, is to absorb the spectator into the illusion.
Simon During explores the cultural significance of the erasure of the bound-
aries between reality and illusion and between art and life in the context of what he sees
as the period’s preoccupation with “secular enchantment.” His case study is William
Beckford and the extraordinary visual spectacle that Loutherbourg produced for him
on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday. Through his sceneographic art Louther-
bourg transformed Beckford’s Georgian mansion at Fonthill into a “demon temple.”
For several days guests wandered through dimly lit, heavily draped rooms perfumed
with exotic scents. Loutherbourg’s transformation of Fonthill was in Beckford’s own
words the “realization of romance,” and as such inspired his own gothic novel, Vathek.
Beckford’s rejection of public life—and his withdrawal from it into an artificial para-
dise of his own making—points again to the tendency in modern commercial culture
to embrace imagination and the irrational, by catering to private dreams and modes of
In 1823 the landscape painter John Constable wrote to a friend that he had gone
to see a diorama. “It is very pleasing & has great illusion,” he observed; however, “it is
without the pale of Art because its object is deception.”13 By the time he was writing,
the thrill and fascination that eighteenth-century artists like Gainsborough had ex-
perienced in the presence of illusionistic technologies had diminished. What had been
a source of artistic excitement was now seen as machine-made deception, not art. Con-
stable’s reaction is indicative of a distinction established in the early nineteenth century
between art and the technologies of visual illusion. To understand this distinction
would involve tracking emerging attitudes toward the machine and its power to repro-
duce human consciousness, labor, and the appearances of reality. But even more it
would mean exploring what Terry Castle has called the “spectral politics” of modernity
and its alternating fear of and fascination with the uncanny, and with “machines that
mimic and reinforce the image-producing powers of consciousness.”14 Since Locke’s
use of the metaphor of the camera obscura, the human mind had been understood in
terms of an image-making machine. The illusion-producing machines of the eigh-
teenth century suggested that individual consciousness and the fantasies it manufac-
tured could now be mechanically reproduced and transmitted to others. To reproduce
these mental imaginings as “real” was to confound distinctions between the real and
the imagined, the rational and the irrational; distinctions that the Enlightenment had
sought to maintain.
Dioramas, which reproduced scenes of ruins and landscape so realistically that
spectators threw objects at the screen to test the reality of the illusions, were indeed
13. John Constable, John Constable’s Correspondence VI: The Fishers (Ipswich, Suffolk, U.K.,
1968), 134.
14. Terry Castle, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the
Uncanny (New York and Oxford, 1995), 137.
 208 ann bermingham

uncanny. While evolving from those mechanical devices of wonder, like the show box,
they also established the mechanism of popular visual culture whereby special effects
must become ever and ever more spectacular if they are to continue to enthrall their
audiences. It was against this technology of illusion, and the mode of spectatorship it
engendered, that art of the Romantic period would come to define itself. Gains-
borough’s show box straddles the line between art and the machine. Its appeal to imag-
ination, its privatization of the aesthetic, and its dependence on technology link it to
the mechanical illusions of the nineteenth century, while its rejection of “deception”
for a mode of painting that calls attention to itself as painting distinguishes it from
these spectacles. Its use of technology to anti-illusionistic ends can be seen to resist the
technological drive manifest in so much eighteenth-century visual spectacle to desta-
bilize the boundaries between psychic and material realities. In the end, it provides us
with a tool for thinking about the differences between art and technology and their
powers to realize imagination.

university of california, santa barbara

In the introduction to this special issue of the Huntington Library Quarterly, Ann Bermingham uses
Thomas Gainsborough’s show box to reflect on the major themes of the issue, including imagination,
the privatization of the aesthetic, the technologies of illusion, and the uncanny. The show box opens
onto the realm of visual magic and imagination, and in doing so anticipates many of the popular visual
spectacles that emerge at the end of the eighteenth century. The box embodies the period’s fascination
with art’s power to realize imagination, and imagination’s power to destabilize the boundaries between
psychic and material realities. Keywords: Thomas Gainsborough, Gainsborough’s show box, technolo-
gies of illusion, privatization of the aesthetic, art and technology