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Handmade kaleidoscopes reintroduced to the UK

We can all remember as a child being fascinated by the Kaleidoscope, with the beautiful shapes and colours seen through a cardboard tube with a hole at one end, and coloured bits that rattled when shaken at the other.

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Kaleidoscopes by Frank and Janet Higgins seen recently in the Surrey Guild Gallery

Now for the history

The kaleidoscope was invented by Sir David Brewster, a leading Scottish scientist, in 1816. Sir David was a great experimenter and populariser of science. Within a few years of his invention, kaleidoscopes were being manufactured in thousands. The kaleidoscope was known as “the great philosophical toy".  It seems that from the beginning people recognised that kaleidoscopes were more than just something pretty to look at. Because of a defect in the drafting of his manufacturing licences, however, Brewster saw very little commercial reward for this invention. In the 1870’s in the USA, Charles Bush patented improved designs and features and was commercially successful.

Kaleidoscopes were popular on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the Victorian era, but then interest waned as other forms of entertainment grew. Some originals have survived, and the best examples can now fetch thousands of dollars at auction. For much of the 20th century, kaleidoscopes were kept alive by the American toy industry.

Frank and Janet Higgins Kaleidoscopes

Frank and Janet started their kaleidoscope business in the late 1990’s. They had run a small stained glass studio which made windows, lamps and decorative items since the mid-1980’s. By coincidence, they had christened the studio “Kaleidoscope Stained Glass”, but they only discovered contemporary kaleidoscopes ten years later. This was while visiting the USA, where there had been a renaissance of interest in the subject and there were many good craftspeople making interesting instruments, hundreds of serious collectors, and several retailers specialising in kaleidoscopes.

They brought some of these home as presents and wondered if they could turn their glass working skills in that direction. At that point they discovered that there was no one in the UK making them, so they had to work out the complex optical aspects for themselves. Frank’s ancient physics degree helped him. There was a lot of interest in their new work and within a few years they had wound down their conventional stained glass work to concentrate on design and creation of kaleidoscopes. Twenty years on, they are still the only makers of “serious” kaleidoscopes in the UK. Their work is in the collections of enthusiasts around the world and has won awards, most recently at an exhibition in the USA to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of the kaleidoscope.

What Frank and Janet love about creating them

It starts with the almost magical-seeming way that any kaleidoscope will create a harmonious, beautiful image from a random arrangement of elements. Then there is the blending of art and science involved in design, coupled with the opportunity to deploy a range of glass working skills – fusing, flameworking, glassblowing, stained-glass construction and precision mirror work. Finally, there is the almost universal delight and “wow” reaction that they see in people encountering their work for the first time.

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Over the past twenty years, Janet and Frank Higgins' mission has been to reintroduce "serious" kaleidoscopes to the UK, the land of their invention 200 years ago.

All designs are handmade by Frank and Janet, with currently over 30 different designs; those in limited editions are signed and numbered. Their output is not large, so they will remain rarities. As far as they know, there are still no other high-end kaleidoscope designer/makers in the UK.

One-off and commission pieces

This is where imagination can run free and they can explore the three aspects of kaleidoscope design – image geometry, viewing object form and exterior construction. Many of their best ideas have arisen out of discussions with customers about commission works.

"St Basil" was designed originally for a collector, to commemorate a visit to Moscow

"St Basil" was designed originally for a collector, to commemorate a visit to Moscow

Website::   http://www.kaleidoscopestudiouk.com

Contact: frank_higgins1@hotmail.com

This is an occasional blog for Surrey Guild of Craftsmen submitted by Camilla Whybrow, jewellery maker and Surrey Guild of Craftsmen member.