Calum Colvin : Natural Magic

February 2010

Publication: The Times

This show sets out to explore some of the rich material surrounding the development of nineteenth century optical science and photography and its relationship with the fertile cultural, political and religious milieu in Scotland and England at that time. It's a complex, ambitious body of work by any standards and its impact, beyond the mere novelty of the stereoscopic 'magic' it employs, will in large part be based on our understanding of the back-story behind Colvin's technical, optical and intellectual investigations. 


Central to the dramatis personae in Colvin's predominantly Victorian and exclusively male panoply of characters is one David Brewster.  Brewster, who died in 1868, was a polymath and 'natural philosopher' – what today would be termed a physicist – with a speciality in optics. He is credited with the invention of the kaleidoscope and had an involvement, but not an exclusive one, in the development of the stereoscope. The later devices created the illusion of three-dimensionality by allowing the human eye to look at two slightly differing images through paired lenses. 


Devices such as the stereoscope not only had a great popular appeal but also represented advances in science, including a greater understanding of how the eye functions, as well as adding to the growing interest in the myriad possibilities of photography.  It was Brewster who introduced David Octavius Hill to the painter Robert Adamson, thus facilitating the most important photographic partnership in the history of the medium.


For many years Colvin has created a three-dimensional tableau onto which he paints imagery such as tables, ladders, books  portraits etc.  A series of diverse and visually significant props are distributed within these assemblages (in the case of a pair of Byron and Burns portraits these include, respectively, the Cross of St George and the Saltire).


These images, objects and painted interventions are then photographed as a whole and then printed onto canvas. Here, they are designed to be viewed stereoscopically. The illusion of depth adds another intellectual and visual dimension to these works and somehow one feels in the midst of a hall of mirrors where the medium is the message and vice versa. The myriad complexities multiply, each creating an additional layer of meaning. 


Colvin has made images of Brewster and Brewster's great rival Charles Wheatstone. Elsewhere there are allusions to Hill and Adamson, as well as a number of complex self-portraits. It goes without saying that the Enlightenment and early Victorian period were febrile and fecund times for intellectual advancement. The complexity of Colvin's imagery seems to echo and reinforce this. 


The inclusion of the 'twinned' portraits of Byron and Burns seems particularly apposite and subtle. Through their writing they represent the paired 'lenses' with which contemporaneous Scottish culture and identity was viewed  a perspective which resonates today. One, the aristocratic Anglo-Scot; the other, the radical Republican nationalist. This is art for our times which reinvigorates past debates and provides plentiful material for future discourse.