Support provided in part by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Through the Looking Lens: Cornelius Varley’s Wondrous Images of Art and Science, 1800-1860
Down the Rabbit Hole with Cornelius Varley
When Lewis Carroll sent Alice down the rabbit hole, he imagined a drink that would make her smaller than a mouse and a cake that would extend her body to the size of “the largest telescope that ever was.”
Through the Looking Lens highlighted stunning watercolors by British artist/inventor Cornelius Varley (1781-1873) that range from vast panoramas rendered small to microscopic algae writ large. But unlike the enchantments of Carroll’s imagination, Varley’s wondrous images were of real things. He captured them before the advent of photography, using drawing instruments he invented, along with optical lenses he crafted and employed with great skill.
Varley is known as an artist, but this exhibition was the first ever to showcase him as the inventor and maker of drawing instruments integral to his artistic and scientific practices. Through the Looking Lens revealed the full breadth of Varley’s work at the intersection of art and science. Similar to many early APS members in the 18th and 19th centuries—polymaths such as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Smith Barton, David Rittenhouse, and Alexander Bache—Varley effortlessly traversed the boundaries of multiple disciplines, propelled by his enormous inquisitiveness. Like Carroll’s Alice, Varley was “curiouser and curiouser.”