Greenwich Camera Obscura
I always forget we’ve got our very own camera obscura here in Greenwich. There aren’t many of them in London (though I discovered whilst looking up stuff for this post that there’s one in the playground at the Michael Faraday primary school in Elephant & Castle, which makes a change from the manky painted football pitch at my own school…) though if you’re going to have one, the Observatory seems like the obvious place.
Perhaps the reason why there aren’t that many around in England is that there aren’t too days on which they actually work very well. To get the most out of one you need a really sunny day and a really dark room, and in Greenwich it’s hard to get either, or at least together.
In the summer there’s plenty of sun, but there’s also plenty of tourists, flapping in and out of the place, which means it never gets dark enough. In the winter there’s fewer people barging in, but there’s also less sun.
But I guess our camera obscura’s biggest weakness is also a strength if it goes some way to showing us the sort of conditions great painters like Vermeer and Canaletto had to put up with when creating their masterpieces of London (the NMM website tells me that Canaletto used such a device to get the perspective right when he painted Greenwich Hospital.)
They work in a simple but clever way. The term literally means “darkened chamber” and if you ever did that thing with a shoebox and a pinhole when you were a kid it works in exactly the same way – only the Greenwich ‘shoebox’ was clearly for seven-league boots, has the pinhole in the roof and projects the image onto a big table via a mirror:
You have to wait for your eyes to adjust to get the image, even on a bright day, even without people swooshing in and out (the double curtain just doesn’t work very well) but you do get an eerie panorama of the Queen’s House if you stand there long enough:
The building the device lives in is worth a mention – it’s a lovely little summer house, which, I suspect, was used to entertain bigwig visitors in days of yore. It forms part of the ‘cute’ bit of the Observatory, right on the Northern edge by the railings, (next to the ghastly grey snack van, which is still parked in the best viewing position, tut…) Just outside, on one of the walls, lives Halley’s tombstone, nicked from St Mary’s church in Lee (the one in the graveyard is a fake.)
Don’t know about you, but I hardly ever make it to the Observatory in the summer, but one of the joys of living here is that when the winter months arrive and the visitor numbers reach more manageable levels, crunching through the fallen leaves on a sparkling Autumn day is a special pleasure. And if the day is bright enough you might even see something in the camera obscura…
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