Peep Holes

Updated: May 8, 2019

This is Joseph Moxon's 1670 book Practical Perspective or Perspective Made Easie in Cambridge University Library (M.14.63). It's got pop up diagrams, and it's got holes. Even better, it's got a hole IN a pop up diagram. Moxon's an interesting figure. He was the king's Hydrographer, responsible for surveying and charting bodies of water. But he was also a printer, who produced books about various 'mechanical arts' including printing itself. His various interests coalesce in this book, in which he's thinking about how you represent three dimensional information in print. Or, how do you encode space in the the flat plane of the page? A lot of it consists of elegant diagrams of visual perspective, demonstrating rules about lines of sight, vanishing points, and tricks of foreshortening. Many of these were taken from an earlier work, Hondius' treatise on perspective of 1623

Moxon uses some innovative devices that really tweak the settings of the page, though. The book's most famous feature is this pop up figure who stands perpendicular to the page, illustrating the perspectival gaze. He's supposed to be looking through a window, which was made of transparent micah, although in this copy that part is missing. But the book has another, even better moveable element, pierced with a tiny hole, through which the viewer can peer to see an anamorphic image of the king's face. Looked at from above, as you would normally read a page, it's stretched and elongated. But if you really squint through the hole, its features assume something like the correct proportions. I just about managed to capture this using my camera phone.

The strangest thing is that it makes you look at the page from an unusual angle, in a literal sense, but other senses too. You're using it, manipulating and seeing it in ways that are not to do with usual reading practices. Moxon has created an instrument out of the page, and you really have to get right up close to it to use it. It turns you from a reader into a voyeur, which is interesting because there's a bit of gratuitous female flesh to be ogled, in the form of another figure (not a pop up, sadly) who seems to have most of her breasts on show. She's demonstrating lines of sight, but in truth she's more about being looked at rather than looking.

Moxon's peephole made me think of the kinds of folding paper peepshows that came along much later and were especially popular in the the Victorian era. These weren't scientific in nature, but novelties designed for entertainment. They're sometimes known a tunnel books because they unfold into a kind of concertina, creating an effect of receding perspective for the viewer, as they peer through the viewhole. This one, in the CUL (Broxbourne.e.20) is quite a late example. It's from1940, but it makes an interesting parallel with Moxon's peephole. It's a commemorative artefact from Germany, celebrating 500 years of the printing press. When you look through the peephole the scene is one of a (slightly idealised) Gutenberg era print shop. It uses the paper technology of 3D illusion to illustrate the history of printing, which is rather nice, because Moxon is using printing to tell us about the rules of perspective and 3D illusion. Both of them turn the page into a viewing contraption, tricking the eye into seeing certain kinds of space and depth and image.

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