Tuesday, October 12, 2010



Winona Ryder as Veronica Sawyer in Heathers (1989)

A monocle is a type of corrective lens used to correct the visual perception in only one eye.  It consists of a circular lens, generally with a wire ring around the circumference, that can be attached to a string.  The other end of the string is then connected to the wearer's clothing to avoid losing the monocle.  

It was Baron Philipp von Stosch (1691-1757), the important, but controversial Prussian antiquarium, collector and (apparently) spy, who first put the monocle on the fashion map when he wore the device in Rome in the 1720s in order to more closely examine engravings and antique engraved gems.  Stosch's tome, Gemmae Antiquae Caelatae, containing Bernard Picart's engravings reproduced the images of seventy antique carved hardstones, including onyx, jasper and carnelian.  It is still considered an invaluable scholarly resource.

Edme Bouchardon (1698-1762), Neo-Classical Bust of Baron Philipp von Stosch,  1727, marble, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Stosch's collection eventually comprised over 10,000 cameos, intaglios and antique glass pastes.  (Most of these are currently housed in various Berlin museums.)  Like some other "intrepid" collectors throughout history, some of Stosch's acquisitions were obtained through shady methods, as the following story illustrates:

"It was in looking over the royal cabinet of medals that the keeper perceived the loss of one; his place, his pension and his reputation were at stake; and he insisted that Baron Stosch be most minutely examined.  In this dilemma, forced to confession, the erudite collector assured the keeper of the royal cabinet that the strictest search would not avail.  'Alas, sir, I have it here within', he said, pointing to his breast.  An emetic was suggested by the learned practitioner himself, probably from some former experiment."  (From Isaac D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature, 1791.) 

Giovanni Battista Pozzo,  Cast bronze medal portrait of Baron Phillpp von Stosch at age 26 (1717)

It was not until the 1790s, however, that the monocle, introduced as a high fashion "dandy's 'quizzing glass'", became a more standard item of gentlemen's apparel.  This set the stage for its greater popularity throughout the nineteenth century.

19th century gold "quizzing glass" monocle

Like many people, I'm certain, I was intrigued by the monocle immediately upon first viewing. Although that specific event is forever lost in the sands of time, I think it might have been when I saw an encyclopedia  photograph of the famous actor and anti-vivisectionist George Arliss,  the first Brit to win an Academy Award (which he did in the Best Actor category for his portrayal of Disraeli in 1929).  Arliss was a great star and a fine man.  With his monocle in place, he  projected fully the image of the English gentleman. (In a  funny coincidence, Isaac D'Israeli, the source for the Philipp von Stosch anecdote recounted above, was the father of Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister so memorably portrayed by George Arliss.) 


George Arliss (1868-1946)

Until yesterday I had completely forgotten that Winona Ryder had worn a monocle in some key scenes from Heathers, one of her best movies.  And today, I rediscovered the picture found below of the always impressive and somewhat frightening William Hartnell, appearing as the very first Doctor Who, as well as the strange internet photo of a Japanese girl who posted a plaintive request for someone, anyone to please send her a drawing showing her posing in her monocle.

William Hartnell (1908-75), the first Doctor Who

Female Japanese monocle wearer, 2008 

My own personal monocle avatar has always been the Romanian-French poet, Tristan Tzara (1896-1963), a principal Dadaist, key early Surrealist, and always a charismatic, inspirational figure.  For me, one look at Tzara (I have provided three below) tells the whole story.   

Tristan Tzara (top two photos); Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Max Ernst (bottom photo)

I used to have a monocle too.  I spent the summer of 1971 on a student summer trip to Paris and when my school, the Paris-American Academy, scheduled a four-day excursion to London, I made it my main purpose to purchase a monocle there.  (I was already under Tzara's spell.)  Someone told me that I would probably be able to find one at the Portobello Road flea market and I was not disappointed, except for the fact that I found the monocle difficult to wear and it made me look ridiculous.  (How did Tristan Tzara manage to look so cool when I looked so uncool?)  I soon placed the monocle in a dresser drawer or a jewelry box and haven't laid eyes on it since the mid-1970s.  

When we moved into our current house three years ago, I  was finally able to retrieve everything I had placed in storage over the years.  Once again, I seem to physically possess absolutely everything I have ever owned.  I suspect the monocle may be in the attic, no more than 200 feet from where I sit.  I wonder if I will ever see it again?

19th century gold monocle fitted with "gallery" piece for greater comfort.

Mr. Peanut, Antonio Gentile and Unknown Artist, 1916

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