chapter  1
23 Pages

‘From these three, light, shade and colour, we construct the visible world’

We see before us a hand-coloured engraving of a somewhat inscrutable but, nevertheless, seemingly unexceptional cat’s head (Figure 1.1, overleaf). However, appearances can be deceptive. If we were to position this print in front of a light source, all at once, the image would be transformed. Dark recesses in the ears, a glistening pink tongue, and an amber glow in the eyes would materialize. This picture, with its impressions of depth, luminosity and dynamic vitality, is an example of a transparency, a new medium that emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century. The dramatic effects of transparencies proved to be so popular that the medium was made in all manner of shapes, sizes and venues. John Plunkett explains:

they were ubiquitous at pleasure gardens, balls, assemblies, hustings, dinners, astronomical lectures, theatres, fairs and – most prominently – at civic celebrations of all kinds. The most elaborate large-scale transparencies for public exhibition were usually produced by professional scene painters, drawing-masters or even esteemed Royal Academicians, yet their prevalence stemmed from the fashionable production of small paper and ornamental versions by amateurs.