Optica- Harbour of Dunkirk
This lovely 18th-century seascape is a fine example of a hand-coloured optica print or perspective view, a type of print that was popular in the second half of the 18th century. These prints were primarily crafted in the centres of Augsburg, Paris, and London using linear perspective to be viewed through a zograscope, a machine which employed an angled mirror and convex lens to create the illusion of depth. Wealthy homes would have owned such a viewing apparatus and used the prints as sources of entertainment and for the purposes of imaginary travel to faraway lands in a time when an interest in exploration was expanding. For the lower classes, these might have been encountered at markets and fairs as a source of illusion and wonder. Most prints followed a similar format in terms of standard sizing and horizontal orientation, and usually depicted cityscapes with important buildings or monuments rather than moral, biblical, or historical themes. As a popular escapist object recognizability was a priority, though the views were often inspired by fantasy and idealism. In the foreground, the brightly coloured flags attached to the ships’ masts move in a variety of directions. Beyond the tumultuous green waves which host humble and imperial ships alike, lies the port and walled town. The Church of Saint-Éloi and the free-standing belfry to its right, rise centrally against the sky, with labels in both French and German beneath the scene. Imagination and transportation certainly take over when admiring this fascinating piece of engineering and artistic history.
At this time in history the harbour town of Dunkirk underwent a sequence of rising and falling fortunes, piracy, destruction, and rebuilding. After a bloody battle between Spain and England, Dunkirk was declared a free port in 1658, at which point fortunes were made through privateering and trade. With the War of Spanish Succession (1701–1714) and its resulting Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, the fortified walls of the town were torn down and the harbour filled in, though they were later restored under French ruler Louis XV (r. 1715–1774). From the mid-18th century, the port town enjoyed prosperity with an expanding population and the growth of new industries, alongside the spread of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the Seven Years War (1756–1763) and French Revolution (1789–1799) saw the loss of its status as a free port and further physical and cultural destruction.