Vermeer's Camera is published in paperback in Apri1 2002.
ISBN: 0-19-280302-6. Price £10-99 in UK, $16-95 in USA.
The hardback is now out of print.

From the reviews of the hardback:

Quentin Williams, Art Review December/January 2001

"This is a book review. As such it may be quite commonplace. Its subject, however, is exceptional. Hardly anyone writing about Vermeer during the past 50 years has offered any authentic information about his working methods. Not many art scholars can paint and so cannot write about the actual process. To make matters worse, scholars have also neglected, over the last 20 years, Philip Steadman's astonishing reconstructions of Vermeer's painting room and camera obscura.

Steadman's major work, Vermeer's Camera, is to be published by Oxford University Press next month, after many years in preparation. Its intelligence is massive. The bibliography references which it abundantly contains give the serious student, in unusually clear language, all the information needed for meaningful research. The many pages of diagrams demonstrating exactly how Vermeer used the camera are, for the more general reader, the most cogent and absorbing I've ever seen. Not least because of a widespread refusal to recognize the importance, and sometimes even the existence, of Vermeer's camera obscura, this book, while of considerable scientific importance, is of salient and paradigmatic art-historical importance."

Frank Whitford, Sunday Times, 25th February 2001

[Philip Steadman] "so persuasively makes the case for the camera obscura that, were he transferred from his chair at University College London to Gray's Inn, his record as an advocate would eclipse the late George Carman's. Steadman makes plans, elevations and projections of Vermeer's compositions. He reconstructs scale models of paintings and then takes colour photographs of them that look uncannily like the originals. Years ago (for this research has been progressing for decades) he even persuaded the BBC to re-create and film the room in Vermeer's The Music Lesson (c1662- 4), with the woman at the virginals played by a static Carol Vorderman.

Steadman measures the originals of the maps in Vermeer's paintings so as to establish a scale. He researches the size of standard Dutch bricks of the time, using it as an additional aid to the measurement of everything else. He concludes that not only are the dimensions of the rooms shown in Vermeer's interiors very similar, so are the floor tiles, the ceilings and the leaded windows. He then decides that at least a dozen of Vermeer's best-known pictures are set in one and the same room. Take it from me: this is really something.
And it's all set out as compellingly as any classic closed-room mystery. Indeed, this book is a kind of corpseless closed-room mystery itself, since Steadman dramatically demonstrates that Vermeer's camera was nothing less than a room within a room, a darkened cubicle large enough for the artist to sit in apart from the carefully staged scene he was painting. Steadman even claims to catch a glimpse of this same phantom cubicle reflected in the glass ball hanging from the ceiling in The Allegory of Faith (after 1671-74). It's a moment as exciting as the denouement in Josephine Tey's The Franchise Affair."

Brian Sewell, Evening Standard, 19th March 2001

"This is a necessary book. It does not reduce to dust all others on Vermeer and one might argue that it merely tidies away a minor mystery - but it does more than that, for it is, as it were, an introductory history of the camera obscura long before it was used and perhaps perfected by or for Vermeer, opening our eyes to its wide spread in his day. Written in clear and simple terms, illustrated with diagrams that even the purblind idiot can comprehend, this is exegesis at its most intelligent; at last we understand what some had always instinctively suspected and maintained - that both the manifest distortions of Vermeer's interior spaces and his dextrous use of minute blobs of paint as highlights where we hardly expect them were commanded by ground glass lenses and the camera." Read full review >>

Maggie Gee, New Statesman, 16th Apri12001

"Perhaps an idealised notion of Delft itself draws us in, an imagined place of intimate human meaning that precedes machines. If so, Philip Steadman's ingenious Vermeer's Camera will come as a rude shock. Steadman argues that Vermeer's uniquely accurate perspective stems from the painter's use of that 15th-century mechanical invention, the camera obscura. In his account, it was probably a large booth at the back of the room, big enough for the painter to sit inside, with a pinhole and lens through which the scene was projected on to a flat surface for tracing. He adduces the extraordinary coherence of the canvases, whose actual sizes correspond closely to the image that would have been obtained on the back wall of the room if a camera obscura had been used, and also cites Vermeer's use of "photographic" effects, such as varying sharpness of focus.

Sanford Schwartz, New York Review of Books, 31st May 2001
Joint review of Vermeer's Camera with Anthony Bailey, Vermeer: A View of Delft and Walter Liedtke et al, Vermeer and the Delft School, catalogue of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the National Gallery, London.

"Of the three new approaches to the painter, Philip Steadman's Vermeer's Camera is the most vivid and impressive. It doesn't answer every question about Vermeer; it's not nearly as comprehensive as Liedtke's art-historical surveyor Bailey's biography. In its chief thesis, that Vermeer used an optical device, a camera obscura, to make his paintings, it may even be dead wrong. Yet reading about how Vermeer might have used such an aid presents, at least in Steadman's telling, an experience that is closer to how we absorb the painter's intense, spooky, and perfectionistic work than Liedtke's or Bailey's accounts. It's only in Steadman's presentation that I felt I came close to Vermeer himself...

That Vermeer might have used a camera obscura is not a new surmise. From the 1860s, when he first became known outside Holland, writers referred to the "photographic" quality of his pictures. Lawrence Gowing, in what is widely regarded as the most perceptive study of the painter, said that while the details of the matter would probably always be buried, Vermeer had to have used a camera obscura for aspects of his work. Gowing even wrote that it was only with the invention of photography and our becoming used to its way of representing reality that Vermeer's work began to lose its oddness. No one, though, has gone as deeply into the matter as Steadman, who pursued his investigation armed, eventually, with a working knowledge of the room Vermeer operated in. This knowledge permitted him to ascertain what Vermeer's own point of view had to have been - where he was standing to have seen his models and tables and so forth in just this way...

...Steadman's findings ring true. There's a poetic inevitability to the account. Anthony Bailey writes that, learning how in so many cases there is a direct correlation between the sizes of images projected inside a camera and the sizes of Vermeer's painting, he was convinced by Steadman. What wedded me to Steadman's work was a point that isn't made much of. It derived from what he found when he analysed the glass sphere that hangs above the woman in the Met's own Allegory of the Faith. The sphere has little blobby lines and patches on it which seem to reflect spots of light in the room in this picture. Steadman's analysis of the sphere, based on a scaled-down re-creation of the room it would be reflecting, is a revelation. He makes it clear that the little milk-drop-like patches in the sphere do represent distinct elements in the room; and when Steadman, inching along in his presentation of the light and dark areas, comes to a dark zone that fits every description of a camera obscura, you may find yourself suddenly breathless. Taking in the little battle station, with light streaming around it, is like coming face to face with Vermeer himself.

Beyond these extraordinary findings, Steadman's descriptions of the properties of the image produced by a camera obscura dovetail perfectly with the distinctive qualities of Vermeer's art. What's transfixing about Vermeer's pictures is the way he seems to think in depth and on the surface simultaneously. Whether or not the issue of optical devices concerns you, you are aware both of how measured the space of his individual pictures is as it moves inward - how easy it would be to walk right in - and flabbergastingly, of how that picture's elements are so perfectly locked together on the surface that they might as well be flat. The Met's Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, for example, has the force of an abstraction. Every shape can be taken as if it were on the same flat plane, with no depth. Every item appears both as its sculptural self and as a silhouette of itself that has been tacked against the back wall.

Images produced by the camera obscura, as Steadman describes it, compress space in the same way. Furthermore, the camera presents forms exactly as Vermeer painted them, as softly glowing areas of light and shadow. It has been much commented upon that X-ray photography of Vermeer's paintings shows that he never laid down his shapes with drawn lines. There's no conventional drawing in his work, just masses of dark and light - exactly the information he'd get from the projected image of a camera obscura."

Theodore K Rabb, Times Literary Supplement, 29th June 2001

"As with Galileo's proofs, so with Steadman's: one can refute him only by his own methods, not by citing opinion or authority. My guess is that this geometer and architect will add a new dimension to the literature on Vermeer - just as that other non-art-historian, Montias, did before him."

Jeremy Noel-Tod, London Review of Books, 9th August 2001

"Philip Steadman's short, lucid, exemplary book offers an explanation for Vermeer's 'perplexing and paradoxical quality: a perfect perspectival illusion of depth co-existing with an effect of surface flatness which can suggest mosaic or marquetry'. His title nicely puns on his main thesis: that Vermeer used a camera obscura. This theory isn't new, but Steadman attempts to prove it indisputably, by offering geometrical evidence derived from 'the only available source of information' - the paintings...

Steadman is conscientiously scientific in his method and sophisticated in his logical unpicking of other writers' romantic assumptions about the working artist. He speaks with the authority of a practised draughtsman, and on his first page dismisses the 'old and - one might have thought - long-since settled controversies about whether photography can be an art'. Such a device, far from being a technical shortcut, must have put Vermeer to great pains - including working in near darkness during the initial stages of a painting. And however much it helped him to obtain precise outlines of the elements of his scene, no camera could have mixed his intense and subtle colours for him.

The portrait of Vermeer that emerges would have satisfied Joyce and Proust... Steadman posits a camera that was literally a little room, enclosing a space big enough for Vermeer to sit and work in. As he marked in the areas of light and shade (another curious finding of modem analysis is that there are no dark underlying compositional lines in the canvases), he may well have been working with an image inverted by the lens, further abstracting the human scene. He is revealed, like Joyce with his maps of Dublin, as an 'unnecessary' perfectionist: where his contemporary de Hooch improvised the painting in of floor tiles (they don't quite match up if the figures which obscure a given area are removed), Vermeer reproduced the underlying grid precisely - 'not that this is at all important to the way we read the pictures', Steadman comments."

iris gallery

Every so often someone comes along with a viewpoint different enough from the majority of writers on a subject that they are able to offer fresh ideas and create a genuine movement forward. For twenty years Philip Steadman has studied the geometry of Vermeer's paintings and has made a discovery that at a stroke appears to have concluded a long-running debate about this artist, and at the same time set up numerous new questions to investigate.

Read full review by C.S.


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