Thursday, 7 October 2010

Everything you always wanted to know about specs...

Poor Jonathan Franzen. First the wrong version of his book is published, then some idiot goes and steals his glasses. I would find that an unforgiveable personal invasion - I've worn glasses since I was a child and can't imagine what I would look or feel like without them, but that's the joy of specs.

His glasses would, however, make a great contribution to the British Optical Association Museum, which was established in 1901 and is now housed in a basement on the same London street as Benjamin Franklin House. Fellow American Herman Melville and German poet Heinrich Heine lived down the road in the 19th century.

What its website styles the 'musEYEum' is said to be 'the oldest and one of the best optical museums in the world'. It has a collection of some 16,ooo objects, only a fraction of which can be exhibited at any time, ranging from an intricate 17th-century model of an eye made from ivory to the latest blister-packed contact lenses. (They don't, however, have T-shirts boasting the legend: 'I went to the Optical Museum and made a spectacle of myself.')

A selection of frames - including a pair with automated wipers - is a great resource for current designers, says the museum's enthusiastic curator (the picture, above, is taken with his kind permission). The collection includes eyewear belonging to Dr Johnson, CP Snow and Ronnie Corbett - yep, they're kept in glasses cases - as well as the arms of spectacles belonging to Dr Crippen. An optician, I'm told, he smashed the lenses in an attempt to kill himself.

I wouldn't have minded seeing more famous frames: I particularly favour those iconic, round-rimmed Windsors, I believe they're called, sported by as various a crowd as Gandhi, Groucho Marx, John Lennon and Harry Potter, but would love to see Woody Allen's classic set - he's said to have given Penelope Cruz a pair after filming Vicky Christina Barcelona - or even those belonging to Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Soku. (Does anyone pass down frames to their children?)

Wandering up Charing Cross Road afterwards I'm struck by the huge variety of spectacles on show worn by passersby. At a time when gene treatment, advances in laser surgery and the like could mean glasses become an idiosyncratic throwback, we should try and compile some form of specs files. With Franzen's pair at the centre of the crime of the hour, where better to start? It could be called You've Been Framed.

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