Come and experience the wonders of our Camera Obscura, here at Gainsborough’s House and on the road.

Our permanent camera obscura, situated in the stunning landscape studio, allows visitors to gain a 360-degree view of Gainsborough’s hometown of Sudbury and the landscapes which inspired him. A predecessor to modern photography, discover how this centuries-old contraption works and even have a go at operating it yourself.

Our nomadic camera obscura has visited festivals and events across Suffolk. See below to discover where you can next find us on the road.

Come and see the magic for yourself!

Every Thursday between 1–3pm, drop-in. 

Other session times are available, contact learning@gainsborough.org or ask for Front of House at 01787 372958 for details.

FAQs

How many Camera Obscuras are there in the world?

There are 74 camera obscuras in the world, with 21 of those being in the UK (including Gainsborough’s House).

How does a Camera Obscura work?

In its simplest form, a camera obscura (Latin for ‘dark chamber’) is a dark room with a small hole in one wall. When it’s bright outside, light enters through the hole and projects an upside-down image of the outside world onto the wall opposite the light source. With our camera obscura, light is angled into a lens by a mirror, the lens then focuses the light onto the table, projecting an image onto it. The mirror tilts and rotates allowing us to see a 360-degree view of Sudbury.

What is the history of the Camera Obscura?

The first known written account of a Camera Obscura is from Chinese philosopher Mo-tzu in 350 BC. In the 11th century, Ibn Al-Haytham identified the inverted image and experimented with the Camera Obscura concept. The term ‘Camera Obscura’ is said to have first been used in 1604 by Johannes Kepler. Artists such as Vermeer (allegedly) and Canaletto used Camera Obscuras in the 17th and 18th centuries, and smaller box-like versions were created around this time too. Camera Obscuras later became popular attractions and contributed to the development of modern photography by using them to expose paper covered in silver chloride to light.

Why did artists use Camera Obscuras?

From the 17th century onwards, some artists used Camera Obscuras as an aid in plotting composition, especially for complex scenes such as architecture, perspective, and people.

What is the connection to Gainsborough?

Although there is no evidence Gainsborough himself used a camera obscura, his close friend Joshua Kirby wrote a book about them. Other artists were also using them at the time Gainsborough was working. Gainsborough was clearly interested in experimenting with light— creating the Showbox (considered a ‘cousin’ to the camera obscura) which can now be seen at the V&A. Gainsborough would paint landscapes with oils on glass, and would view them through the Showbox, backlit by candles. He used this as an aid in planning larger compositions and to explore the effects of lighting.

What landmarks of Sudbury can you see?

Gainsborough’s House, Television masts, the Library/old corn exchange, St Peter’s Church, Sudbury Town Hall, Prolog (now flats @ top of North Street), Vanners silk, St Gregory’s Church, Sudbury Water Meadows and Christ Church (top of school lane).

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