In the 18th century, it was London’s spectacle makers behind the greatest innovations. In 1725 Edward Scarlett – whose ‘Old Spectacle Shop’ could be found in Dean Street, Soho – invented the modern spectacle frame, by making a pair with sides for the first time. He also promoted lenses with their ‘powers’ on them, effacing for the first time the process of trial and error that had dictated prescription dispensing up to that point. Fellow Londoner James Ayscough made double hinged sides in the 1740s, and introduced glasses with tinted lenses, a precursor to modern sunglasses.
Over the ensuing century, the district of Clerkenwell would become the centre of the British optical industry, with factory after factory opening up. Over the turn of the 20th century, many immigrant families set up workshops there, while separate opticians were located most often on The Strand. In the 1930s, despite economic difficulties, the spectacles industry was booming in London, recognised worldwide as a centre of excellence.
The great change came in 1948, when the UK introduced the National Health Service, completely altering the optical landscape. This unprecedented scheme offered spectacles free of charge or subsidised by the government. During this period, the industry flourished under standardised conditions, producing high quality frames, on mass, in time. The designs were simple and flattering, providing the blueprints for much of the ensuing history of British spectacle design.
When the scheme was abandoned in the 1980s, the same businesses had been left behind by spectacle makers elsewhere. Now, Clerkenwell doesn’t have a single spectacles factory left. Cubitts is now one of a small handful of companies making spectacles in London.
But British designs from throughout the 20th century remain as relevant today as they ever were, reconstituted in the changing face of British spectacle design.