David Mellor – Magnifying the Past

Image © David Mellor

When I was thirteen I feared I was going blind. This anxiety went hand in hand with an obsession with making telescopes. So my visit, with my Mother, to an optician to check my eyes was also the occasion for me to cadge lenses to help me build ridiculously amateurish telescopes. These were held together with gaffer tape from the factory where my father worked. He helped me dismantle a British Army gunsight from a military surplus store-which he was familiar to him from the war- and which yielded up what appeared to be a fabulous piece of oversize jewellery. This was an eyepiece which showed pristine images of the world with terrifying clarity, like the first day of creation. Combined with the spectacle blanks given to me by the optician, I built a cardboard telescope which disclosed the secrets of Orion … but secrets literally coloured red by the chromatic aberration of the simple, uncorrected lenses which I had scrounged. And my own eyes were, anyway, faulty and astigmatic. It felt as if the world would blur and dim in front of me.  I needed some countervailing force that would allow me to see clearly. That was where Zeiss binoculars – so expensive, heavy and remote, yet close to see and on view in the opticians’ window, beckoned to me. They were miraculous machines, and to me they still are. The interior, cut away, of my Zeiss Octarem travelling companion processes rays and beams which hover between the phantom appearance of a Marcel Duchamp painting of 1913 and X-rays. Time itself moves through them and it feels to me that, when I use them, I am both looking into and through the past as well as being granted temporal revelations, right now, in all their glittering complexity.          

David Alan Mellor is a Curator and Art Historian.