The London Museum That's Got Dr Johnson's And Ronnie Corbett's Specs

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 9 months ago

Last Updated 18 September 2023

The London Museum That's Got Dr Johnson's And Ronnie Corbett's Specs

It's an eye-opening collection that has spectacles belonging to Dr Johnson, Ronnie Corbett, and contact lenses worn by Leonardo Dicaprio and Joey off Friends.

Specs worn by Ronnie Corbett.

Then again, this is the British Optical Association Museum on Craven Street...

...and there's enough optical-related memorabilia here to keep you ogling for hours.

Our curator for the afternoon, Neil, on the left.

The museum is London's most central — it literally touches Charing Cross station — but it gets just 1,000 visitors a year.

A cabinet of eye wash cups.

Often this place makes you do a double take. For instance, the pretty modern-looking sunglasses on the far right were worn by a Venetian gondolier around 1780:

This ingenious invention from the 1880s allowed customers to scroll through lenses themselves, picking out the ones that helped them see best:

The museum also has the world's biggest collection of contact lenses, including special ones made for chickens, so they can't see red (blood) and therefore don't fight. Here's some more no-fighty eyewear for poultry, nicely modelled:

Back to that celeb eyewear for a second. Here, as promised, are the specs once worn by Dictionary creator Samuel Johnson. Note the personalised case. In 2003, the museum tried the specs on Johnson's death mask... they fitted perfectly.

And here's an entire collection of the Queen Mother's eyewear. In her early days she had bespoke glasses made by top designers, but in her latter years, she was happy getting someone to nip into Boots for a pair.

These glasses are celebrities in their own right — the oldest known surviving pair with a sidearm. They were very nearly chucked in a skip. Which would have been quite a short-sighted move:

Lenses and frames are just a part of the museum. Here's a box of glass eyes, taken to Flanders for use on the many men who lost their own eyes in the first world war.

Here's a collection of 'lovers' mementoes'. These tended to depict mistresses, rather than wives.

And here's a turtle. 'Tortoiseshell glasses' is a misnomer. Frames were actually made from turtle shell. And fellas like this one were proudly displayed in opticians' windows to lure customers in (these days, the museum sponsors a turtle in the wild, to make amends for the profession's past non-ethical practices).

The eye as a 'brand' is explored too, with 2012 Games cyclops mascots Wenlock and Mandeville rubbing, er, eyes with the Egyptian Eye of Horus:

You could take up a good couple of hours alone in these two rooms. But if you're willing to shell out a mere fiver, more floors of the British Optical Association's Georgian townhouse are opened up to you, by way of a personal tour.

Spectacles, our guide Neil tells us, were first worn in the 13th century. One room is plastered with images of glasses wearers from over the ages. In one cartoon, two dandies wear-swivel-brimmed hats so that they can access their pipe, snuff or glasses on a whim (we wouldn't be surprised to see this invention back on the streets of Hoxton soon). In another, a glasses-wearing fop is mocked for the inefficiency (or over-efficiency) of his lenses:

There are plenty of blink-and-you'll-miss-it moments. Even the picture frames in this room wear frames:

While we're on the subject of looking closely, note the British Optical Association's crest. The three suns represent the sources of all light on Earth, the three-headed eagle looks left and right (the association has no political affiliation) and forward (when an optician studies an eye, they're predicting what the future has in store for the patient). The curved white sections of the shield are actually lenses.

The neighbouring room is an odd one — displaying as is does, pictures with negative connotations of spectacle wearers. It is, Neil explains, important to recognise the stigma that those suffering from eye diseases often experienced — and still experience now. In this 17th century painting called The Misers, glasses are seen as a sign of being a tight-arse:

The room also has this picture of Benjamin Franklin — alleged inventor of bifocals — wearing some broken glasses (Franklin was notoriously thrifty, unfortunate given the prejudices in the previous painting). Neil points out that the British Optical Association has more Franklin related artefacts than the Benjamin Franklin House a few doors down. He also doubts that Franklin invented bifocals.

In the library, you'll find the oldest known printed depiction of spectacles, from the 1475 book Rudimentum Novitiorum. Ironically, the guy wearing them is a Roman senator — the Romans did not have spectacles:

The library, by the way, can be accessed by appointment. It's not just people in the eye profession who come here. Everyone from art students to costume makers come here to swot up:

The British Optical Association Museum is at 41-42 Craven Street, WC2N 5NG. Entry is free but you must pre-book. You can also book onto a longer guided tour — we'd recommend it. Oh yes, and did we mention it's haunted?

Apparently by eyeless ghosts. The irony.