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IQ and my perfect school


The use of optical devices in art
Richard Gregory Scientist
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David Hockney had this idea about Western paintings suddenly taking off in a big way with the use of optical devices as aids to perspective and painting and his claim was that this sort of realism in painting really came from the artist being able to see optical images on screen and they didn’t necessarily copy that screen but the idea that you could get an optical image representing reality was enough to make them think more fully about what it is to represent on a canvas with paint. I think the jury is out actually. It seems to work at about the right time. I think the evidence is that sitters in portraits weren’t actually surrounded by these curved mirrors, they are actually mirrors and not lens as he suggested, because they would have reported it. I mean nobody reported the, you know, the surrounded with apparatus and whatnot, but on the other hand I think he was more certainly right that art is learnt from looking at optical images projected by curved mirrors or lenses. I think this is almost certainly right and it may be that Vermeer actually used what’s called a camera obscura directly. My own guess is it wasn’t so much used directly tracing the image and this sort of thing which is difficult to do. I mean it would have been upside down, it would have been very faint and things like this but what you saw in the optical image gave him an idea of what it is possible to do on a piece of paper or canvas. I personally think that’s it, so I agree with half his thesis but perhaps not the other half. And what about Canalettos with the amazing details of Venice and so on? Yes. Well, this is a difficult question, isn’t it? You either have to say that some painters are amazingly good at painting or you have to say they use a technique which some people might call cheating. And when do you call it cheating and when you don’t is a bit arbitrary, I mean, heavens, there’s nothing wrong with having a rest for one’s wrist when you’re using the brush in a delicate bit of work on the painting but some people think you shouldn’t use a lens. Okay. Why could you use a rest for your arms to stop it wiggling about and not be allowed to use a lens, you know? It’s very arbitrary, I think. I don’t think it’s cheating, I think it’s using your intelligence to help things along a bit.

The late British psychologist and Emeritus Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Bristol, Richard Gregory (1923-2010), is well known for his work on perception, the psychology of seeing and his love of puns. In 1978 he founded The Exploratory, an applied science centre in Bristol – the first of its kind in the UK. He also designed and directed the Special Senses Laboratory at Cambridge which worked on the perceptual problems of astronauts, and published many books including 'The Oxford Companion to the Mind', 'Eye and Brain' and 'Mind in Science'.

Listeners: Sally Duensing Adam Hart-Davis

Sally Duensing currently is involved in perception exhibition work and research on science and society dialogue programmes and is working with informal learning research graduate students and post-docs at King's College, London. In 2000 she held the Collier Chair, a one-year invited professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Bristol, England. Prior to this, for over 20 years she was at the Exploratorium, a highly interactive museum of science, art and perception in San Francisco where she directed a variety of exhibition projects primarily in fields of perception and cognition including a large exhibition on biological, cognitive and cultural aspects of human memory.

Born on 4 July 1943, Adam Hart-Davis is a freelance photographer, writer, and broadcaster. He has won various awards for both television and radio. Before presenting, Adam spent 5 years in publishing and 17 years at Yorkshire Television, as researcher and then producer of such series as Scientific Eye and Arthur C Clarke's World of Strange Powers. He has read several books, and written about 25. His latest books are Why does a ball bounce?, Taking the piss, Just another day, and The cosmos: a beginner's guide. He has written numerous newspaper and magazine articles. He is a keen supporter of the charities WaterAid, Practical Action, Sustrans, and the Joliba Trust. A Companion of the Institution of Lighting Engineers, an Honorary Member of the British Toilet Association, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Dyers and Colourists, and Merton College Oxford, and patron of a dozen charitable organizations, Adam has collected thirteen honorary doctorates, The Horace Hockley Award from the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators, a Medal from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Sir Henry Royce Memorial Medal from the Institute of Incorporated Engineers, and the 1999 Gerald Frewer memorial trophy of the Council of Engineering Designers. He has no car, but three cycles, which he rides slowly but with enthusiasm.

Duration: 2 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2006

Date story went live: 02 June 2008