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Whipple Library

Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Drawing using the viewfinder of the graphic telescope, and photograph of the segment of the building being drawn

Xinyi Wen

Supervisor: Boris Jardine

This MPhil essay began with an accidental encounter with the Graphic Telescope held at the Whipple Museum, patented by the artist and scientist Cornelius Varley (1781-1873). As a special telescope that enables you to exactly trace down on paper what you see through the lens, it was widely used by intellectuals of Varley’s time for microscopic drawings, landscape paintings, and even reproducing William Blake’s visions in a dream.

Patent Graphic Telescope by Cornelius Varley, London, 1840. Wh.0069. Whipple Museum of the History of Science. Photo courtesy of X. Wen

My essay explores the fluid, embodied exchange of objectivity and subjectivity in its wide application in art and science, and responds to current scholarly debates about ‘mechanical objectivity’. I carried out my research through a unique method: an experiment of drawing Free School Lane buildings with Varley’s Graphic Telescope myself.

Varley 2

Reconstruction of the use of a 19c telescope was not easy. Luckily, we have several treatises by Varley explaining the mechanics of his Graphic Telescope, with clear illustrations. We brought these treatises to the museum office, together with some Varley’s manuscripts held at the Whipple Museum, and carefully set up the Graphic Telescope. After a few failed attempts, we finally managed to catch clear images of faraway buildings on the eyepiece. With A4 paper and a pencil I traced down the image, in which every brick and every contour line was clearly visible.


This fascinating experiment, with the invaluable collections from the Whipple Library and Museum, allowed me to recognise and understand the use of the Graphic Telescope in a variety of 19c drawings, and inspired me towards one of my central ideas in the essay: the discipline of artists’ and scientists’ hands and bodies through instruments of objectivity.

Consulted items from the Whipple Library:

  • Holland, J., Varley, C., Slack, H., Whipple, R. (1834). Communications relating to the microscope. Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, Commerce. Bound with two other Varley pamphlets ‘Graphic telescope’ and ‘Improvements in the vial microscope’.
  • Varley, C. (1800). Directions for using the patent graphic telescope, invented by Cornelius Varley, and sold by him, at No. 95, Tottenham-Court Road, London. London: J. Ferguson, Printer.
  • Varley, C. (1845). A treatise on optical drawing instruments ... Also, a method of preserving pictures in oil and in water colours. London : Horne, Thornthwaite, & Wood.

Further reading

Art and Astronomy: Cornelius Varley
From the Whipple Museum: Explore