Thomas Gainsborough’s ‘Showbox’ Paintings

On the 2nd of August 1788, English painter Thomas Gainsborough died in London at the age of 61. One of the most unusual artworks created by the artist, now on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is his experimental showbox with his back-lit landscapes painted in oils on glass, which allowed them to be changed and viewed like slides. Made in the 1780s, the minuscule works can be seen in this specially constructed ‘showbox’,  a machine consisting of a number of moveable transparent planes, lit at the back, and through an adjustable magnifying lens. Originally, the painted glass transparency was set before a silk diffusing screen illuminated by three candles. The box opens at the top and back and even has special slots for storing the transparencies.

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. (…) As an occasion for reverie Gainsborough’s show 51c9y-KsodLbox is cousin to the camera obscura, 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, unlike 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 direction of dream, unreality, and the unconscious.” (Ann Bermingham, ‘Introduction: Gainsborough’s Show Box: Illusion and Special Effects in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, June 2007).

In a special issue of the Huntington Library Quarterly, University of California academic Ann Bermingham used Thomas Gainsborough’s showbox to apply contemporary commentary on issues such as “imagination, the privatization of the aesthetic, the technologies of illusion, and the uncanny” to this unusual piece by Thomas Gainsborough. Bermingham showed that the showbox opens onto the realm of visual magic and imagination, anticipating many of the popular visual spectacles that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century in the form of panoramas, phantasmagoria, and other spectacles.  In this period in which sympathy and sensibility were highly valued in art, the viewer was encouraged to take active part in the art appreciation process, far from it being a passive experience. The box was a symbol of art’s capability to cater for the needs of imaginatiogainsn, and the viewer was invited to explore the illusion provided by these transparencies. By doing this, he was also invited to supply what was missing in the paint handling. Although the technique Gainsborough used has been seen by some as prefiguring early experiments in photography and even cinematography, Gainsborough most likely used the showbox as another way to exhibit the creations of his painterly imagination.

“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. Gainsborough’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 destabilize 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.” (Ann Bermingham, ‘Introduction: Gainsborough’s Show Box: Illusion and Special Effects in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 70, No. 2, June 2007).

Some of the slides contained within Gainsborough’s showbox can be viewed HERE

Feature image: Wooded Moonlight Landscape with Pool and Figure at the Door of a Cottage by Thomas Gainsborough, Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, taken from the website of the VAM